USCCB at 100: Fear of too much political involvement led cardinals to oppose NCWC

Catholic chaplains are seen in a 1918 photo at camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Ky. (CNS/courtesy The Catholic University of America Archives)

Catholic chaplains are seen in a 1918 photo at camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Ky. (CNS/courtesy The Catholic University of America Archives)

(Last in a series)

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — What were the fears and perceived threats that led to the suppression of the nascent National Catholic Welfare Council?

Correspondence in the early 1900s shows some of the motives driving Cardinals William H. O’Connell of Boston and Dennis J. Dougherty of Philadelphia, who led the minority of U.S. bishops opposed to the new organization.

In his historical account of the NCWC’s formation, Jesuit Father Gerald Fogarty wrote that, after Pope Benedict XV gave his approval to the national council in 1919, Bishop Charles E. McDonnell of Brooklyn, New York, immediately objected, saying a national body speaking for all the bishops would end up dictating policy and intrude into the internal affairs of individual dioceses. Father Fogarty’s book, “The Vatican and the American Hierarchy from 1870 to 1965,” said Cardinal O’Connell picked up the banner of opposition, in part because a national organization would likely replace the traditional practice of having the most senior cardinal in the U.S. be the de facto “primate” or national leader of the church.

Cardinal O’Connell, the Jesuit wrote, may have wanted to position himself as the next leader of national prominence with the death in 1921 of the nation’s senior cardinal, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, a major proponent of the NCWC. Cardinal Gibbons had hoped a unified force with adequate authority could accomplish much more than any individual when it came to preventing the passage of “hostile laws” and speaking up for Catholic interests, Father Fogarty wrote.

But in a letter in late 1921 to Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation of the Holy Office, Cardinal O’Connell said his greatest concern was not personal power, but a fear that there was “an intangible something which would seem to emanate from too much politics, diplomacy and intrigue — too much mingling with affairs which don’t concern us.”

When Pope Benedict XV died in January 1922, the two U.S. cardinals headed to Rome for the conclave that would elect Pope Pius XI. They used their time in Rome to lobby for the Vatican’s condemnation of the NCWC.

Before leaving Rome, Cardinal Dougherty received from the Vatican’s Consistorial Congregation — the predecessor of the Congregation for Bishops — a decree ordering the NCWC “to disband immediately,” Father Fogarty wrote. The decree was signed by Cardinal Gaetano De Lai, the congregation’s secretary and a friend of Cardinal O’Connell. But apparently the cardinal members of the congregation had never been assembled to discuss the matter, Father Fogarty told Catholic News Service.

In response to the decree, the administrative committee of the NCWC quickly consulted with U.S. bishops and proposed sending a petition to Rome, giving reasons to continue the NCWC and requesting the decree be suspended.

In the meantime, Cardinal De Lai asked Archbishop Giovanni Bonzano, apostolic delegate to the United States, to get Cardinals Dougherty and O’Connell’s opinions on the issue. Father Fogarty said Cardinal Dougherty answered that the Vatican condemnation of the NCWC should stand.

Not only would an annual meeting of bishops be a violation of canon law, the welfare council was a small group of bishops, priests and laymen who would usurp the hierarchy, Cardinal Dougherty wrote.

“Laymen have been appointed at extravagant salaries to do work which, in some instances, is of very little importance to religion,” in particular, the setting up of a press department, Cardinal Dougherty wrote. He also frowned upon allowing laypeople to produce statements on issues like education, saying bishops would not throw their support behind such public statements.

In correspondence to Vatican officials, Cardinal O’Connell voiced his support for abolishing the NCWC, which was “great in pretense and gigantic in cost,” dedicating itself to “futile and useless works.”

The push for a more collegial, horizontal organization of bishops would “weaken hierarchical authority and dignity,” Cardinal O’Connell said, and the organization would make new laws and decrees by assembly vote, “a method which naturally has more popularity, the idol of the day.”

However, 85 percent of the U.S. bishops showed their support for the NCWC, and the administrative committee sent Bishop Joseph Schrembs of Cleveland and Archbishop Henry Moeller of Cincinnati to Rome with the documentation, which had been translated by an Italian professor of canon law at The Catholic University: Father Filippo Bernardini, future nuncio and archbishop, who also happened to be the nephew of the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri.

Pope Pius XI allowed the NCWC to continue, telling Bishop Schrembs he had not fully understood the meaning of the Consistorial Congregation’s decree abolishing it.

In the summer of 1922, a new decree from the Consistorial Congregation recommended: the bishops not meet every year; attendance be voluntary; decisions at the meetings not be binding; and the name “council” — which, for the Vatican, suggested a legislative, law-making body — should be changed to something else, like “committee,” to underline a more consultative organization.

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Follow Glatz on Twitter: @CarolGlatz.

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