When I was old enough to start noticing such things, a few American bishops crossed my consciousness. I never laid eyes on my own diocesan bishop, Joseph Burke [r. 1952-1962], who skipped my parish confirmation and paid a visiting missionary bishop $5/a head for the privilege. According to Buffalo folk lore, when bishops were polled by the pope’s representatives prior to Vatican II for the topics they wished to see discussed, my bishop replied that the Council should mandate red altar coverings, so as to easily spot the tiny white crumbs from the broken communion host. Bishop Burke has a small footnote in the history of Vatican II; he was the first bishop to die at the Council, during the first week, no less.
In the 1960’s many Catholics could be excused if they thought the highest ranking American churchman was Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston. Cushing was very close to Joseph P. Kennedy, patriarch of the Massachusetts Kennedy clan. Cushing married John and Jacqueline Kennedy, supported John in his run for the presidency in 1960 against the wishes of most U.S. bishops who preferred Richard Nixon, and may be most remembered for the televised funeral Mass and Arlington Cemetery rites of President Kennedy three days after his assassination. In 1968 Cardinal Cushing came under harsh criticism in some quarters for refusing to condemn the widowed Mrs. Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis, who was divorced.
In terms of significant power in the Church, in government, and in international affairs, the most significant bishop to this point in the history of our country was Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York [r. 1939-1967]. When I recently obtained and read a copy of The American Pope: The Life and Times of Francis Cardinal Spellman  by John Cooney, I was surprised that near 40 years later no one has seen fit to write a definitive history after Cooney’s. Cooney’s biography of Cardinal Spellman is, in the words of Kirkus Review, “a drawn-out hatchet job on a distasteful man who seems to deserve most of what he gets…” A richer critique of this book is William V. Shannon’s 1984 “Guileless and Machiavellian.” Shannon, a highly respected author in his own right and an ambassador to Ireland, writes that “this is not a great biography, because the important issues are not weighed judiciously enough, and the writing is not careful and nuanced.” And yet, Cooney's is the only biography of Spellman that stands.
To know and understand Spellman is to know much of the history of the Church of the United States from the Great Depression to the Viet Nam War, to know an era of incredible ecclesiastical growth, and to appreciate, if that is the right word, the golden age of clericalism, when a bishop could forbid his diocese from patronizing a particular movie. An excellent fundraiser, one of Spellman’s considerable achievements was the construction of churches, schools, and other institutions throughout the Archdiocese of New York. A little-known fact is that the calendar year 1966 was the first in which Spellman failed to build a new school in the Archdiocese, which corresponds to the end of the post-war building boom of Catholic schools in the United States.
Spellman hailed from Whitman, Massachusetts, outside of Boston, and seems to have crafted his own seminary cursus, obtaining a master’s degree at Fordham University and then to the North American College in Rome to complete studies for the priesthood. Spellman was frank from the beginning that he had little use for theological disputations or deep personal piety. [“I hire theologians.”] He envisioned his priesthood as an energetic builder. Like other ambitious clerics, Spellman used his time in Rome to befriend both Vatican officials and rich lay Catholics, serving as something of a genteel go-fer, arranging tickets for papal audiences, for example.
His superior, Archbishop William O’Connell of Boston, did not like him. Perhaps it is the nature of the beast that go-getter clergy make bishops nervous. But O’Connell put Spellman in onerous administrative posts such as hawking the diocesan paper, The Pilot. For his first pastorate, Spellman was sent to a poor parish with a large debt. Spellman retired the debt and demonstrated his ability to connect with wealthy potential contributors. It was his skill as a translator as well as a fundraiser that prompted Rome to disengage him from O’Connell and work for the Curia, where he wrote English language radio addresses for the sitting pope, Pius XI.
Soon Spellman was serving as a special currier throughout Europe on behalf of the Holy See, where he made the most valuable friendship of his life, with Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, who used his influence to situate Spellman as an auxiliary bishop under O’Connell back in Boston. [O’Connell was never consulted.] Spellman served as middleman in negotiations between Franklin Roosevelt and Pius XI over diplomatic recognition of Vatican City. In 1939 Pacelli was elected to the papacy as Pope Pius XII and one of his first acts was the appointment of Spellman to the position of Archbishop [and soon Cardinal] of New York. Soon after his New York appointment, Spellman was named Apostolic Vicar for U.S. Forces, i.e., archbishop for all U.S. military units stationed around the world.]
Unbeknownst to most Catholics at the time was his private work for President Roosevelt during World War II. As a clergyman, Spellman enjoyed access to international state leaders and generals that would not be available to a professional diplomat. He discovered in his private dealings with the high command that U.S. military leaders privately viewed Russia as the major postwar threat, a view that enhanced Spellman’s deep hatred of totalitarian Communism and would color his work back in the United States after the war. Spellman had genuine respect for the fighting men in the trenches and spent many Christmases overseas with U.S. troops, a practice he continued through the Korean War and the Viet Nam War till his death in 1967.
As World War II ended, Spellman engaged in rebuilding his archdiocese, heavily in debt, its facilities aging, and baby boomer families extending into Long Island and the Hudson Valley. Between 1954 and 1959. Spellman supervised the construction of churches , schools , rectories , convents , and other institutions . Coupled with his own construction were the donations of millions of dollars to the operation and discretion of the Vatican, still recovering its losses in World War II. By this means the Cardinal cemented his ties with Pius XII, the Roman Curia, and churchmen around the world.
Spellman was able to generate funds in several ways. He centralized all parochial finances in the chancery, commonplace today but apparently not the practice of New York when he arrived. He taxed his 400+ parishes and centralized all operation and construction through his office, simplifying oversight and enhancing the archdiocese’s purchasing power. He developed “white glove soliciting” in the nation’s finance capital and attracted donations from celebrities and business barons. He inaugurated the Al Smith Dinner, now de rigour for national politicians each October, particularly during election years when the two candidates for the American presidency are seated at the head table with New York’s archbishop between them. [At the 2000 dinner, candidate George W. Bush addressed the audience: "This is an impressive crowd. The haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elite. I call you my base." In 2012 Barack Obama famously roasted builder Donald Trump, then in attendance, over the “birther issue.”]
Spellman was a man of superlative generosity and administrative genius. He was one of the first American bishops to recognize the pastoral needs of a growing Hispanic Catholic population and gave his blessing to weekly Spanish Masses. Under ordinary circumstances I would have expected several expanded and detailed biographies of Spellman to have appeared in my lifetime. However, any biographer would have to come to grips with several aspects of Spellman’s life that today’s reading audience would find hard to hear and where available evidence is debatable or contradictory.
Spellman’s politics. As noted earlier, Spellman was a rabid anticommunist who in later years found it difficult to separate Church, State, and free speech. His public statements and government advice lent the credibility of the Church to the witch hunting and career destructions of the McCarthy era. Spellman’s open support of Senator Joseph McCarthy was in many respects a dereliction of duty, well intentioned as it might have been allowing for the “Communist scare.” When the need for a moral voice against McCarthy was greatest, Spellman and the U.S. Catholic Church was in no place to deliver it. Thus, in 1954, it was left to the attorney for the U.S. Army, Joseph Welch, to confront on national television the excesses of McCarthy’s tactics with his famous “Have you no sense of decency, Senator, at long last?” In 1956, when McCarthy was disgraced, sick, and drinking heavily, Spellman saw fit to provide McCarthy with an infant for adoption from one of his archdiocesan foundling homes, an act viscerally condemned by authors who mention it.
Spellman’s graveyard. Pope Leo XIII had granted workers the right to organize and negotiate in the 1870’s, but in 1949 Cardinal Spellman refused to hear the request of the diocesan grave diggers union, seeking a 40-hour week instead of its current 48-hour arrangement. Spellman locked them out, and when the number of coffins reached about 1200, he ordered New York seminarians to dig the graves. Spellman’s overworked defense was his belief that unions were rife with communists.
Spellman and Bishop Fulton Sheen. When Fulton Sheen grew tired of his academic career in Washington in 1950, he was transferred to New York where he is most famous for his prime time TV show, “Life Is Worth Living” on the Dumont Network as well as his directorship of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith. Sheen’s TV and publishing reputation as “America’s Bishop” would hardly sit well with his superior who believed himself to hold that popular moniker. In 1957, Spellman and Sheen had a major falling out over powdered milk donated by the federal government for distribution overseas. Spellman gave the milk to Sheen to distribute through the offices of the Propagation of the Faith but charged him over $1 million for the milk. In “the great milk scandal” Sheen appealed to the pope, the dying Pius XII, who sided with Sheen against his protégé Spellman, who pulled him off television and made him a pariah among diocesan priests.
In reviewing America's Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen  I commented on Spellman’s plan to break Sheen: “These factors, coupled with Spellman's own devils, led to an estrangement between the two that produced one of the strangest episcopal appointments of our lifetime.
“In October 1966 Fulton Sheen was appointed bishop of Rochester, NY. To church observers it was clear that Spellman had orchestrated the transfer for ultimate humiliation effect. In public, at least, Sheen put the best face on things, explaining that his tenure would be an experiment with the reforms of the recently concluded Vatican II. In truth, Sheen was a pre-Vatican II autocrat who alienated nearly every local constituency. His unilateral decision-making cost him his priests, and his explicit criticisms of racial policies at Kodak the support of the city's largest employer. He was deeply wounded that Rochester did not recognize the celebrity in its midst, and within three years "America's best preacher" withered into retirement.” Spellman, in short, had given Sheen the rope to hang himself.
Spellman’s personal life: I noted above Cardinal Spellman’s “own devils.” In the first galleys of the book I am describing here, John Cooney devoted four pages to Spellman’s alleged active homosexuality. The publisher, The New York Times Press, of all people, ordered the material suppressed and Cooney devotes one paragraph to the fact that rumors persist but distract from the main thrust of Spellman’s life and ministry. It is true that J. Edgar Hoover maintained an extensive FBI file on the Cardinal, which has been made public through the Freedom of Information Act, though it is so heavily redacted that I could make little of it. It is easily located on the internet.
Spellman has been dead for 53 years, and Cooney, as well as lesser known writers and eventually posters in social media, have been content to consign the question to ancient history. Cooney published his biography in 1983, before the revelations of bishop misconduct came to light in the 2000’s. Spellman seemed to have dodged any new assaults to his reputation—until February 9, 2019, when Lucian K. Truscott IV, a longtime journalist and writer, came forward in Salon magazine with an allegation that Cardinal Spellman groped him four times during a 1967 meeting. Truscott was a West Point cadet interviewing the Cardinal for the student publication The Cadet. Three witnesses were present, Truscott’s two classmates and a Monsignor who scolded the Cardinal after each attempt.
True to its new policies, the Archdiocese of New York has opened an investigation, reporting that the allegation was news to the Archdiocese. Whatever the outcome, Spellman’s story illustrates how the Church looks for different qualities in its bishops today, a result in part of the new vision of the episcopacy articulated in the Documents of Vatican II. Speaking of Vatican II, Spellman had little use for the Council, particularly the proposed English Mass. As he himself put it, “None of this will get past the Statue of Liberty.”
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything