Reluctant Dissenter

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 expected that their views...would be reflected in any papal document or encyclical which Paul VI would eventually issue on this subject.

When Paul VI issued the encyclical, Humanae vitae (1968), restating the traditional teaching that artificial contraception is forbidden in every instance, Shannon was stunned and deeply disturbed. In conscience, he did not believe that the pope’s ruling was defensible. Since he was at that time writing a weekly column for the Catholic press, he was faced with the sort of dilemma which caused John Cogley to stop writing his own syndicated comments on issues of the church. Shannon decided to continue the column, simply avoiding the topic of contraception (a practice now virtually universal in the Catholic press and pulpit). He also announced to his fellow priests at Saint Helena’s Parish that he was just too busy to hear confessions. He did not wish to face the contraception issue in the confessional.

A crisis occurred, however, when a young woman called at the rectory seeking counsel. Shannon was on "house duty." The woman’s story was simple. She and her husband had practiced the rhythm method since their marriage began because of difficult financial circumstances, which were not likely to improve markedly, given their skills and level of education. Nevertheless, a child was conceived and they were in fact overjoyed at the birth. Again they resorted to the rhythm method, again the woman conceived. A second child truly put this small family "at the edge." The young woman reported that her husband’s attitude toward her had changed dramatically and negatively after the second birth. She had read Humanae vitae. Could she possibly practice some other form of birth control without committing serious sin? Shannon answered an unequivocal "Yes."

As the young woman walked out the front door, Shannon went out the back door and drove to see his archbishop, Leo Binz. Binz was friendly but simply could not understand how Shannon could have any problems. Any moral or intellectual scruples should just be overcome by the official teaching. Binz counseled Shannon that as a bishop, he had no choice but to accept the teaching on contraception. Well, Shannon then wrote to Paul VI about his concerns, there were visits with the papal legate, a leave of absence from the diocese, suggestions that he might like to be relocated in Switzerland, and so on. In the end, Shannon decided that the only honest course was to resign as bishop, which he did officially in June 1969. (Subsequently, he had a happy career at Saint John’s College in Santa Fe and a happy marriage.)

So much for the official problem. There is a personal tale of episcopal politics that is even more painful and which surely contributed to Shannon’s difficult decision. As a young, attractive, well-spoken bishop, Shannon had served as the official spokesperson for the National Council of Catholic Bishops. In 1967, NBC decided to do a special report on the changes being debated in the Catholic church because of Vatican II. Seeking an overall moderator for the program, and having been refused down by Archbishop John Dearden and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, NBC turned to the NCCB media spokesperson, Bishop Shannon. He reluctantly agreed. The program, "New American Catholic," was televised on June 21, 1968. The New York Times commented: "the closest thing to a balanced perspective was provided by the Most Reverend James Shannon...who spoke of the current tensions from what might be termed a moderate position." So much for the Times. The day after the show was televised, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles issued a press release saying that the program was "erroneous, misleading, and unauthorized." Specifically, "Bishop Shannon was not speaking for the people of God."

There then follows a distressing story of the cardinal’s demands for censure of Shannon, of desertion by putative supporters among the bishops, and what can only be regarded as simple betrayal by his superior, Archbishop Leo C. Byrne, appointed coadjutor in 1967. A dramatic climax of sorts was reached when Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan counseled Shannon to sit down and chat with Cardinal McIntyre on the grounds that the latter wasn’t such a bad sort. Shannon approached the old man, who welcomed him warmly. Encouraged, Shannon said that he feared that the cardinal had damaged his (Shannon’s) good name. McIntyre turned red, leapt from his chair, and, in a voice that could be heard all over the room, said, "How dare you?...Your good name is nonexistent." These Christians, see how they....

Jim Shannon must be one of the nicest people alive (he is!) because this autobiography has every right to be bitter, argumentative, and accusatory of everything from hypocrisy to cowardice and betrayal. Instead, it is an archive of thanks to almost everyone he has ever met-even archbishops who failed are treated with generosity. There are so many "thank yous," I thought I was reading not the text, but the acknowledgments. So, I don’t commend this as an enthralling literary work, but I do commend it as a depressing piece of ecclesiastical history.

Published in the 1999-04-09 issue: 
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Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.

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