Writings 1990-1999


Kenneth Westhues

Catholic New Times, 26 December 1999; on the web by permission, August 2003

Minnesota troubled Rome even a century ago. The clergy there, notably John Ireland, Archbishop of St. Paul, felt such solidarity with the people, and with the democratic values of the American frontier, as to raise doubts about their loyalty to Rome. Leo XIII's condemnation of Americanism in 1899 let the Minnesota church know who was boss.

Happily, the fires of democracy are only checked from time to time, never snuffed out. Minnesota culture lived on, passed from one generation to the next. It survived in particular in the young priest, Jim Shannon. In 1965, Rome made the mistake of appointing him auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese. His ordination took place in the cathedral John Ireland built.

It is easy to see how the mistake was made. The son of a successful Irish-born businessman, Shannon was bright, well-spoken, and loyal. As president for nine years of the archdiocese's College of St. Thomas, he showed financial and leadership ability. He handled himself well in the clerical, academic, and philanthropic gentry.

Even now, Shannon seems not to appreciate what was wrong with him. He says what he "wanted most in life was to pledge my talents and skills, such as they were, to the service of others, and to do this as a priest in the Catholic Church" (p. 36). He might have had a successful ecclesiastical career if, reversing these priorities, he had pledged himself to the church first and to service second.

Shannon was too steeped in American culture. He had done his doctorate not in Rome but at Yale—and in American history, no less. His academic work had nourished his commitment to Enlightenment values and his contacts in the secular intellectual elite. Perhaps worst of all, he had gained a popular following among laypeople, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

Shannon lasted three and a half years as a bishop. It was the era of Vatican II, and the openness it promised to the modern world. In the United States, there was the groundswell of popular protest against racial segregation and the Vietnam war. Like any democratic leader attuned to the public will, Shannon heard what the people were saying, championed free expression and debate, and sought change in church and public policy.

While still a bishop-elect, he shared a platform with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. He began to speak and write against the Vietnam War. Shannon found himself unable to accept Paul VI's 1968 proscription of contraceptive birth control. He quit hearing confessions lest conscience require him to defy the pope in his advice to Catholic couples.

Meanwhile, as press officer for the American Catholic bishops, Shannon was becoming a nationally known TV personality and a symbol of change in the church.

All this was too much for Francis Cardinal McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles, the most powerful, aggressive defender of orthodoxy in the American hierarchy. McIntyre blocked Shannon's promotion to a diocese of his own. On September 17, 1968, at a meeting of the executive committee of the national bishops' conference, McIntyre introduced a motion whose effect was to censure and humiliate Shannon. The motion passed 13-7, with 8 abstentions.

The Vatican offered Shannon exile abroad. Instead he resigned his episcopal and priestly ministries and became vice-president of St. John's College in Santa Fe. He married an active member of the distinctly American denomination, the Disciples of Christ. He became a lawyer and carved out a successful career as an administrator of Minnesota philanthropies. He kept faith with the vocation of service he had embraced in his youth, even when this called for dissent from the church he loves.

This autobiography is Shannon's apologia pro vita sua. It is a worthy counterpoint to Newman's. Shannon lets facts speak for themselves. This is a powerful work, free of rancor and laden with insight into education, religion, and politics.

Among Shannon's achievements in his brief episcopal career was erection of a memorial to John Ireland in the tiny Irish village of his birth. It is a monument not just to a person but to humane, Christian, egalitarian, democratic values. This book, too, is such a monument. It has strengthened my faith.