James Patrick Shannon
Crossroad, $19.95, 228 pp.
Reviewers like to say, "this is a book which everyone should read." I wouldn’t say that about Jim Shannon’s Reluctant Dissenter, but I would say that it is a book every American Catholic bishop should read. That won’t exactly swell sales, but it would target the proper audience.
James Patrick Shannon is the "reluctant dissenter" of the title. An autobiography, the book chronicles the life of the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States to resign his office as a matter of conscience. There are two parts to the story; one is official, the other personal. Both stories are instructive.
The official issue turned on church teaching about contraception. Shannon, a priest from the diocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, had a brilliant early career as a scholar (Yale Ph.D. in history), as president of the College of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, and then as one of the youngest bishops in the American hierarchy. He was elevated to the episcopacy in 1965 in time to attend the fourth and final session of Vatican II. Here is his account of how the issue of contraception was viewed by the council fathers:
The consensus, in my opinion as an attentive voting member of that assembly, overwhelmingly favored a more lenient position in Catholic teaching on contraception. It was also my clear impression that the college of bishops, while respecting Pope Paul’s reservation of the topic to himself, confidently...