The Nadir of American Catholicism


What was the worst year ever for the Catholic Church in the United States? A lot of people would call that a no-brainer. The hands-down worst year, they’d say, was 2002, when disclosures of clergy sex abuse and cover-up rocked the Church from top to bottom.

Others would no doubt point to other years as real stinkers. For my money, though, the all-time winner as worst year was 1976. Let me tell you why.

That was when the turmoil, conflict, dissension, and collapse that set in after the Second Vatican Council arguably peaked. Not so coincidentally perhaps, it also was just about then that the incidence of clergy sex abuse of children was at its highest in the United States.

This was the year when confusion and division among the American hierarchy became publicly visible. It was the year of the notorious Call To Action conference, the year of vicious infighting over the hierarchy’s role in a presidential election campaign. A year, in short, when one ugly event after another rained down on the Church in the U.S.

Why rake up all that now? Because remembering the mistakes of the past might help us avoid repeating them in the future.

The Spirit of ’76

America in 1976 was just two years removed from Richard Nixon’s resignation as president in the midst of the Watergate scandal and one year removed from the fall of South Vietnam and its takeover by the communist North. These events came after a  bloody nine-year war in which nearly 212,000 Americans were killed or wounded.

U.S. self-confidence and self-esteem were understandably shaky by the time the Bicentennial of U.S. independence rolled around in 1976. The nation’s 200th birthday party offered a badly needed occasion for an emotional pick-me-up featuring parades and fireworks that reached its visual peak on July 4 with a fleet of tall ships from around the world sailing majestically into New York Harbor.

But the Bicentennial year wasn’t just a time of telegenic happenings meant to make people feel good. There were also such downers as a crucial “right to die” decision in March by the New Jersey Supreme Court allowing a comatose woman named Karen Ann Quinlan to be removed from a respirator, a July 2 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court reinstituting the death penalty, and an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease that killed 29 people at the American Legion’s July 21-24 convention in Philadelphia.

In the Catholic Church, Pope Paul VI’s pontificate was nearing the end in 1976. Pope Paul, who had occupied the throne of Peter since 1963, appeared increasingly weary and sad—visibly distressed that what he called the “smoke of Satan” was smothering the Vatican II renewal of the Church for which he’d hoped.

Among the unauthorized experiments then popping up in the Church was the practice of general absolution. The most publicized incident of this sort took place in Memphis, where on December 5 local ordinary Bishop Carroll Dozier—defying orders from Rome—held a penance service in the Memphis Coliseum that featured general absolution for 11,500 people.

Several years earlier, looking ahead to the Bicentennial, the American bishops had  established a committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to prepare a plan for the Catholic contribution to the anniversary. Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit was chairman. That signaled that the bishops were serious, since Cardinal Dearden had been first president of NCCB (and its sister organization, the United States Catholic Conference) after Vatican II and was a genuine mover and shaker in the hierarchy.

Staffing the program at the national level was entrusted to NCCB/USCC under its general secretary, Bishop James S. Rausch, a priest from rural St. Cloud, Minnesota who’d had a meteoric rise in the Church bureaucracy. That also was significant, since as general secretary Bishop Rausch had emerged as an enthusiast pushing his version of liberation theology.

While the Bicentennial plan had several other components which were largely ignored, its ambitious centerpiece was a project called “Liberty and Justice for All” meant as a platform for justice and peace issues. Countrywide hearings were to lead up to a national conference designated “Call To Action.” The aim, according to Cardinal Dearden, was to find out “how the American Catholic community can contribute to the quest of all people for liberty and justice.”

Eucharistic Celebration

As this grandiose undertaking of the Catholic left took shape, a no less grandiose enterprise of the Catholic right was taking shape in Philadelphia: the 41st International Eucharistic Congress. This was the first of these giant celebrations of Catholic devotion to the Blessed Sacrament to be held in the United States since 1926.

Philadelphia, historic site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, was an obvious choice for a Eucharistic Congress in the Bicentennial year. But Church observers also saw another factor at work. Like Cardinal Dearden of Detroit, Philadelphia’s archbishop, Cardinal John Krol, was a Clevelander, and the two men’s  careers had crisscrossed for years. Cardinal Dearden was first president of NCCB/USCC, Cardinal Krol second; Cardinal Dearden was champion of the hierarchy’s liberal wing, Cardinal Krol of the conservatives. If Cardinal Dearden chose to preside over a left-leaning Bicentennial project, it stood to reason that Cardinal Krol would respond with one that leaned to the right.

The Eucharistic Congress took place August 1 to 8, and by all accounts was a grand success. Its resoundingly Catholic theme was “Jesus, the Bread of Life.” Events included lectures, workshops, exhibitions, and liturgies, among them an enthusiastic Catholic Youth Mass in the Philadelphia Spectrum. The speakers included Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow—soon to be better known as Pope John Paul II; Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement; and Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium, one of the stars of Vatican II. To this day, a statue of Jesus breaking bread, commissioned for the occasion, stands outside the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia as a memorial of the event.

The conclusion of the congress featured remarks by several speakers. President Gerald Ford was one. In his talk he saluted “the supreme value of every person to whom life is given by God.” Three years after the Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade, abortion was clearly going to be an issue in the impending election campaign. Gerald Ford knew that. So did the pro-life Catholic audience that listened to him in Philadelphia that day and applauded his remarks.

Bishops Stitch the Seamless Garment

And so did others. Four years before, Richard Nixon had easily defeated a pro-abortion Democrat, George McGovern, while getting an eye-catching 59 percent of the Catholic vote. Democratic leaders were anxious to bring Catholics back to the party in 1976. Over the summer, Bishop Rausch, the NCCB/USCC general secretary, met in Washington with Andrew Young, a representative of former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, the Democratic presidential nominee, to discuss what might be done.

The upshot was an August 31 meeting at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel between Carter and the executive committee of the bishops’ conference. Its members included Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Cincinnati, then president of NCCB/USCC; Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York; and Bishop James Malone of Youngstown. The bishops pressed Carter—who said he was personally opposed to abortion—to support a pro-life amendment to the Constitution. Carter declined.

Emerging from the meeting, Archbishop Bernardin told a chaotic news conference in the hotel lobby that the bishops were “disappointed” by the candidate’s stand. As that news spread, a firestorm of criticism erupted over the bishops’ heads for their alleged intervention in political affairs.

Believing that Carter had put his foot in it with Catholics, Ford’s staff hastened to arrange a September meeting at the White House for the same group of bishops. Although Ford was, in the words of a political commentator, “mushy on abortion,” he was able to point out to the NCCB/USCC team that the Republican party platform contained an anti-abortion plank and told them he could support a constitutional amendment along those lines. When Archbishop Bernardin left the Oval Office and faced the White House press corps, he said the bishops were “encouraged.”

This time the uproar was even louder than it had been after the Carter meeting. Even some bishops joined in—at least privately and behind the scenes—while, according to Bishop Rausch, at least four prominent staff members of the bishops’ conference threatened to resign. At a closed-door meeting of the NCCB/USCC administrative committee in Washington, Archbishop Bernardin received tongue-lashings from several of his brothers in the episcopacy. Responding to that pressure, on September 16 he held a news conference to issue a staff-written document showing conference support for a number of Democratic policies and to deny that the bishops harbored party or candidate preferences.

Students of history seeking causes and effects might consider the role played by the events of 1976 in shaping Archbishop—later Cardinal—Bernardin’s thinking. One obvious lesson of this episode was that there was no counting on conservative Catholics, who’d kept mum during the crisis. Another was that a “single-issue” approach didn’t work. The result was the multi-issue “consistent ethic of life” that Cardinal Bernardin unveiled in 1983 and promoted until his death in 1996.

Time for “Action”

As fall set in, eyes turned—some in anticipation, some in dread, and most in curiosity—to Detroit, where the Call To Action conference was scheduled for a cavernous convention center. It was to be a curious event in more ways than one.

Beginning in February the year before, the consultation process preceding the gathering was indeed nationwide, as promised—but by no stretch of the imagination representative.

National “hearings” were held in Washington, D.C., San Antonio, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Sacramento, and Newark, with a select group of 500 persons addressing panels that included some bishops. Regional, diocesan, and parish meetings also were held in places that opted to have them. The parish events produced 800,000 responses, but there was no telling how many people were involved in making them. Materials from these diverse sources were reviewed by eight preparatory committees that produced working papers and recommendations for the assembly in Detroit.

When the time came, 1,340 delegates convened for the Call To Action Conference. They were no more representative of American Catholicism as whole than the pre-conference consultation had been. By far the largest number were appointed by bishops of 152 of the 167 American dioceses; the rest were named by 92 national Catholic organizations on the basis of one delegate per organization. Nearly a third of the delegates were priests (including 110 bishops), a little over a third were women, and half were church employees. Conservative writer Russell Kirk, covering the meeting as a journalist, described Call To Action as a gathering of “church mice.”

Meeting in small groups, delegates used the working papers and preparatory recommendations as discussion-starters but formulated recommendations of their own (for example, a recommendation backing the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution—a measure eventually opposed by the American bishops for opening the door wide to abortion). In all, 29 general recommendations were divided into 218 separate items.

By the standards of the time, many of these were radical, especially coming from an assembly of Catholics gathered under the auspices of the bishops. Among them were recommendations for returning laicized priests to the ministry, the ordination of married men and of women, lay preachers, freedom to practice contraception, an open attitude toward homosexuality, and reception of communion by divorced and remarried Catholics. The recommendations of a social and political nature included ones supporting amnesty for Vietnam war resisters and for undocumented immigrants.

Many bishops were unhappy with what these results.

As we waited outside our hotel for a chartered bus to take us to the Detroit airport, one of them approached me and demanded, “Why do you people in Washington make these things happen?”

“Why do you bishops let them happen?” I replied.

There was no answer to that. Officially, the bishops of NCCB/USCC received the Call To Action recommendations with thanks. A committee was created to oversee their implementation. Little ever came of it.

The Council That Never Was

Unknown to most people, the Bicentennial fiasco had a silent victim—it polished off: the dream of a National Pastoral Council for the Church in the United States.

A National Pastoral Council bringing bishops, priests, religious, and lay people together to work under the rubric of “shared responsibility” on civic issues in the life of the Church had been a goal of Cardinal Dearden’s from his post-Vatican II years as president of NCCB/USCCB. Serious exploratory steps in this direction were taken in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But movement came to a screeching halt in 1973, when the Vatican, troubled by things happening in the Netherlands and the United States, sent the world’s bishops a letter telling them to put aside thoughts of national pastoral councils for now.

With hindsight, it’s clear that Cardinal Dearden and people close to him saw the Bicentennial as an opportunity to slip in a prototype pastoral council—Call To Action—through the back door. But they failed to anticipate that Call To Action would be a raucous, controversial, non-representative dud banishing all thoughts of a pastoral council for the Church in the United States for the next half-century or more. Was this a case of what the British call being “too clever by half”?

A Contentious Pastoral Letter

As 1976 drew to a close, the Bicentennial year was capped off by an ugly fight within NCCB/USCC over a collective pastoral letter called To Live in Christ Jesus, which the bishops debated and finally adopted at their general meeting in Washington in November.

Several years earlier, the bishops had published a surprisingly well-received statement on moral values in the United States. Emboldened by that success, the NCCB decided to take the next step—a collective pastoral letter on morality. Since Auxiliary Bishop John B. McDowell of Pittsburgh, a nationally known educator (he died in February 2010 at the age of 87), had headed the group responsible for the “moral values” statement, it was natural that he now be named to chair the drafting committee for the pastoral letter. I had done the writing of the earlier document and was assigned to work with the McDowell committee on the new one. In turn, I recruited Dr. William E. May, a moral theologian who taught at the Catholic University of America and later at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, to serve as theological consultant and chief drafter.

As part of the project, the McDowell committee conducted an extensive consultation. Hundreds of documents offering suggestions poured in over the months. Some were well thought-out and helpful. Others were disturbing evidence of the confused thinking and dissent existing even among supposed experts in moral theology.

As time went on, it became more and more clear that Bishop McDowell had no intention whatsoever of compromising Church teaching on matters like the immorality of contraception and homosexual acts. And as that realization spread, some bishops and  NCCB/USCC staff set to work to torpedo the pastoral letter.

At the 11th hour, prominent staffers arranged for an outside theologian to write an “alternative” pastoral to replace the one being prepared under Bishop McDowell’s supervision. I was instructed to send the “alternative” to the members of the McDowell committee—behind the committee chairman’s back—for review and presumed approval.

But there was a loophole: I was told to do that if I thought best. I didn’t think it best. The “alternative” was deliberately ambiguous about contraception and homosexual acts—a not-very-clever attempt to undermine Church teaching. Instead of sending it to the committee to be approved, I sent the version of the document Dr. May had written and I had polished. It was that document which went to the bishops’ general meeting.

There the pastoral letter ran into heavy opposition from bishops who said it wasn’t “pastoral” enough (translation: it said too clearly that contraception and homosexual acts are wrong). A bishop suggested sending it back to committee for more work, but Bishop McDowell was having none of that. If this product of a two-year effort to say what the Catholic Church believes about morality wasn’t acceptable, he told the bishops, they could get themselves another chairman. Sensing that at this stage no one would take the job, the bishops dropped the subject and accepted the draft, though with an unusually strong negative vote.

“But the damage was done,” Msgr. George A. Kelly wrote in his book The Battle for the American Church.

The specter of bishops wavering uncertainly over Catholic moral values, of bishops meeting in caucus to obstruct a carefully prepared document of the National Conference, was not an image conducive to engendering confidence among those asked to live with Jesus in the manner prescribed by the bishops.

Quite so. Yet To Live in Christ Jesus did manage to hold the line on essentials of Catholic moral teaching at a critical moment. Shocking as the engineered opposition to the pastoral letter was, it would have been much worse had the letter gone down to defeat.

And so, on this equivocal note, 1976 drew to its troubled close. It had been a rough year for the Church, and the immediate future looked no brighter. What no one knew at the time was less than two years later Cardinal Wojtyla of Poland would be elected pope and, having taken the name John Paul II, would launch the Church’s long, hard slog back from the abyss. He launched it with the words, “Be not afraid.” The events of 1976, the worst year ever, suggest how appropriate they were.


Russell Shaw is the former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference, a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C., and author of 20 books.

This article appeared in Volume 22 Number 1.