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.
June 29, 1942, by Lt. Commander John J. Shea, USN, aboard
the USS Wasp:
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,
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.
to read Lt. Commander Shea's letter in full
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
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
Official photo U.S. Navy