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The letter to jackie
How U.S. catholics became the exemplary Americans
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The upsurge of unembarrassed American patriotism in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington inevitably recalls simpler times when almost all Americans confidently viewed their country as the sole beacon of freedom and justice in a hostile, benighted world.

Last spring, the Boston College library acquired a quintessential expression of old-fashioned American patriotism—the "Jackie Letter," the gift of longtime BC classics professor Jack Shea. It was written to five-year-old Jack in 1942 by his father, Lt. Commander John J. Shea '18, while he served in the Pacific on the aircraft carrier Wasp, just weeks before he died trying to save his men during a Japanese torpedo attack.

Commander Shea's letter, full of longing for his wife and son and forebodings of his coming death, was also a lyrical expression of the best of American values—freedom and opportunity, honor and duty, loyalty to country and family. Shea's sisters, Boston public school teachers, read it to their grade school classes, and as word began to spread, the school system printed the letter as a pamphlet that every child brought home. The letter became something of a national sensation when it was featured in the Boston Globe and reprinted in Life, Look, Time, and many other publications.

For students of American Catholicism, however, the "Jackie Letter" is even more striking as an illustration of the mid-century convergence of Catholic values and the American zeitgeist. No one blinked at Shea's flat statement: "Be a good Catholic and you can't help being a good American."

Indeed, the mass media's equation of American values and Catholic values in the 1940s and 1950s was often so blatant as to embarrass thoughtful Catholics. If movies were to be believed, all battlefield chaplains were Pat O'Brien style priests, the "superpadre" later civilianized by Bing Crosby in Going My Way (1944) and Bells of St. Mary's (1945). "Our Lady of Fatima" was actually a hit record in the years immediately following the war, with at least a dozen versions by, among others, Red Foley, Kittie Kallen, Andy Williams, and the Ray Charles Singers. Bishop Fulton Sheen's television ratings in the early 1950s swamped the erstwhile champ, Milton Berle's Texaco Comedy Hour. Francis Cardinal Spellman even had a novel, The Foundling, on the best-seller list in 1951.

Catholics dominated the labor movement, especially in the big industrial unions like the United Automobile Workers. Labor priests were fixtures at union meetings, and many scholars credit Catholic influence for the absence of a powerful homegrown Socialist-Labor movement. Indeed, the Catholic labor movement positioned itself against Communist influence and was a key factor in swinging unions behind the Marshall Plan when postwar Europe was on the brink.

Protestants, understandably, viewed the burgeoning Catholic influence with undisguised alarm. An eight-part 1944-45 series in the Christian Century, a leading mainstream Protestant journal, asked, "Can Catholicism Win America?" and answered, "Yes." Martin Marty, the well-known University of Chicago historian and Protestant minister, lamented the media's habit of referring to "our" Cardinal and "our" Pope, and noted that the funeral of Chicago's Samuel Cardinal Stritch in 1958 had drawn "more Chicago newspaper lineage" than any politician's in memory.

To be sure, the cultural dominance of American Catholicism in mid-century was never as broad or as deep as it appeared to contemporary observers. The media and industrial centers of 1950s America were the big Northeastern and Midwestern cities, all of which were Catholic strongholds. Just as the secularist assumptions of today's television and print journalists do not reflect the religiosity of Middle America, 1950s journalists, who were used to treating bishops as powerful political dignitaries, didn't understand the deep anti-Catholic suspicions that still lingered in the hinterlands, as John Kennedy discovered during his 1960 campaign.

But even stripping away the exaggerations, the vast cultural power of the American Church in the 1940s and 1950s was extraordinary, the more so when one considers that, just a half-century before, the Church was regarded with almost uniform suspicion and hostility—virtually as an agent of a foreign power.


Written June 29, 1942, by Lt. Commander John J. Shea, USN, aboard the USS Wasp:

Dear Jackie,

This is the first letter I have ever written directly to my little son and I am thrilled to know that you can read it all by yourself. If you miss some of the words, I'm sure it will be because I do not write very plainly. . . .

When you are a little bigger you will know why your daddy is not home so much any more. You know we have a big country and we have ideals as to how people should live and enjoy the riches of it and how each is born with equal rights to life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness. Unfortunately, there are some countries in the world where they don't have these ideals, where a boy cannot grow up to be what he wants to be with no limits on his opportunities to be a great man, such as a great priest, statesman, doctor, soldier, businessman. . . .

Take good care of Mother. . . . Study hard when you go to school. Be a leader in everything good in life. Be a good Catholic, and you can't help being a good American. . . .

Last of all, don't ever forget your daddy. Pray for him to come back and if it is God's will that he does not, be the kind of a boy and man your daddy wants you to be. . . .

With all my love and devotion for Mother and you,

Your Daddy

On September 15, 1942, three Japanese torpedoes struck the carrier USS Wasp as it sailed toward Guadalcanal. Commander Shea was seen running into the flames to rescue shipmates. He was among 193 officers and crew lost.

Click here to read Lt. Commander Shea's letter in full

The signal cultural success of American Catholicism, in fact, was the consequence of specific policy decisions that were bitterly fought out in the 1880s and 1890s between the "Romanists" and "Americanists" in the U.S. Church hierarchy. "Americanists" were willing to bet that the Church would thrive under American-style religious freedom; some Americanist bishops even doubted the wisdom of parochial schools. The "Romanists" deeply distrusted republican forms of government, preferring strong rulers with a firm hand on religious practice.

The struggle petered out in mutual exhaustion. The Romanists helped engineer a papal condemnation of "Americanism" as doctrinally unsound. But Baltimore's James Cardinal Gibbons won a signal victory for the Americanist wing when he convinced the Vatican not to condemn the American Knights of Labor, a broad-based movement of industrial workers that was a forerunner of modern CIO-style industrial unionism.

The grand compromise that emerged from the years of ideological struggle was a Church that was in America, decidedly for America and its founding principles, including religious liberty, but most emphatically not of America, or at least the America of slippery attachments and unrooted values that was already emerging by the turn of the last century. At one and the same time, the Church managed to be among the most patriotic of American institutions and the most separatist of American religions, with its own parallel infrastructure—schools, hospitals, summer camps, mental institutions.

The compromise worked because of Gibbons's great insight that a successful American Church had to be rooted in the working classes. The great gulf between the common man and aristocratic churchmen that was the norm in much of Europe and Latin America never existed in the United States. The worker pogroms against priests and nuns that occurred in Republican Spain, and which were a real danger in postwar Italy, would have been inconceivable here.

The apogee, the golden moment, of the grand American Catholic compromise can be pinpointed to a narrow couple of decades in mid-century. And John J. Shea, brought up within the warm wrap of Catholic neighborhoods, Catholic schools, and Catholic colleges, husband and father, American patriot and Catholic believer to the bone, is representative of its great achievement.

Charles R. Morris

Charles R. Morris is the author of American Catholic (1997). His essay "Cross Purposes," on pluralistic democracy and the Catholic Church, appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of BCM.

Photo: In 1946, the airfield at Squantum Naval Air Station was renamed for Lt. Commander John J. Shea '18. His son, Jackie, laid the wreath. Opposite: Professor John R. Shea with the celebrated letter from his father

Official photo U.S. Navy



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