True Grit

Kevin Starr is the state librarian of California, a distinguished visiting professor of public policy at Pepperdine University and chairman of the California Sesquicentennial Commission. His latest book is "The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s" (Oxford University Press)

Roman Catholics, like me, who believe that Los Angeles is destined to emerge in the 21st century as a world center of Roman Catholic practice, are going to love this magisterial biography, 30 years in the making. At long last, a much vilified Roman Catholic prelate of the 20th century, His Eminence James Francis Cardinal McIntyre (1886-1979), the eighth bishop of Los Angeles, can now have his day in court, thanks to the meticulous research and energetic writing of archdiocesan archivist Msgr. Francis J. Weber.

What? I can hear skeptics say: You don’t mean the Cardinal McIntyre, the Erich von Stroheim of the Roman Catholic Church, the Man You Loved to Hate (at least in the secular and liberal Catholic press) throughout the 1960s? This is the cardinal, after all, who allegedly opposed celebrating Mass in English; who allegedly balked at the reforms of the Second Vatican Council; who allegedly pulled the plug on one of the most dynamic sisterhoods in the nation, the Immaculate Heart Sisters, for not wearing habits; and who was asked to resign by one of his own priests, the Rev. William H. DuBay, in a series of fiery press conferences, in 1964.

An even larger audience knows McIntyre as the thinly disguised cardinal-archbishop in John Gregory Dunne’s novel “True Confessions,” with McIntyre’s chancellor and priest-of-all-work, Msgr. Benjamin G. Hawkes, appearing as Msgr. Spellacy (played by Robert De Niro in the 1981 film version of Dunne’s novel), whose priestly vocation had long been lost in his rise up the ecclesiastical ladder and in his toadying to the wealthy and the prominent. So complete was the indictment of McIntyre and Hawkes in “True Confessions” that even the novelist Father Andrew Greeley, himself no great fan of the cardinal, denounced the novel as a vulgar obscenity.


Trained by the renowned ecclesiastical historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis of the Catholic University of America (who was himself ambivalent in his assessment of McIntyre), Weber is much too fine and honest a historian to deny the cardinal’s faults. His eminence could rush to judgment, and he liked to run things his own way in the largest archdiocese in the world (resisting, for example, the creation of Priests’ Senates that were being established in other dioceses and which he believed were an unnecessary duplication of priest consultors who advised each bishop on the day-to-day management of the diocese). He was also no theologian (the Jesuit John L. McKenzie confessed his relief that McIntyre said little about church doctrine throughout his career). In fact, one might agree with one of his more kindly critics, journalist Robert Blair Kaiser, who said that his eminence was considered “a dinosaur in the middle of the twentieth century.”

Yet what Kaiser saw as a dinosaur, I see as an embodiment of the type of priest and bishop who built Roman Catholicism in this nation, brick by brick, throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Social activist Dorothy Day, whom Father McIntyre brought into the Catholic Church, did not see him as a dinosaur, but rather as the epitome of the holy and committed parish priest. The troubled souls whom McIntyre, even as a cardinal, ministered to in the wee hours of the early morning, so that the other priests in the rectory might get a full night’s sleep, did not think of him as cold and unfeeling but rather as a skilled confessor and shepherd of souls and a soft touch for a 5-spot or two. Even his worst critics admitted that McIntyre was the model of courtesy and a devout priest whose personal lifestyle, despite his princely rank, remained essentially that of a parish priest’s.

Let’s go back to the beginning--and the beginning is New York City or, more precisely, the archdiocese of New York. Before and after World War II, the congregation of bishops in Rome sent to California to serve as archbishops of San Francisco and of Los Angeles, respectively, Archbishops John Joseph Mitty and McIntyre, two exemplary products of the archdiocese of New York, considered at the time to be the premier Roman Catholic archdiocese in the nation. When he was appointed Los Angeles’ second archbishop in 1948, McIntyre had been the auxiliary archbishop of New York, rising to that rank on account of his extraordinary administrative abilities. Before entering the seminary at 28, McIntyre, a skilled accountant and money manager, had been poised on the brink of a partnership in the Wall Street investment firm of H.L. Horton and Co.

Initially, McIntyre had seriously considered entering the newly formed Catholic Foreign Missionary Society of America (known as Maryknoll) and going to China as a missionary. His spiritual advisors, however, sensing the young man’s extraordinary administrative and financial talents, steered him into the diocesan clergy instead. After he worked briefly as a parish priest, McIntyre’s fiscal skills brought him rapidly into the New York Chancery as financial assistant to Patrick Cardinal Hayes and, later, as chancellor to Archbishop (later Cardinal) Francis Spellman.

Like the arrival of the Dodgers from Brooklyn a decade later, the arrival of McIntyre in Los Angeles in 1948 helped signal the coming of age of Los Angeles as a front-rank American city on par with New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. From its perspective, Rome could have paid Los Angeles no higher a compliment than to entrust the See of Los Angeles to this tall, handsome, genial but commanding Irishman; a product of Wall Street, of St. Joseph’s Seminary at Dunwoodie, New York (the West Point of American seminaries) and of 25 years at the center of the administration of the archdiocese of New York. As if to symbolize the emergence of Los Angeles as the New York of the Pacific, Cardinal Spellman himself journeyed west in March 1948 to preside over McIntyre’s installation at St. Vibiana Cathedral. Four years later came yet another honor for McIntyre from Rome--a cardinal’s red hat. To this day, Los Angeles remains the only archdiocese west of Chicago to expect a seat for its archbishop in the Sacred College of Cardinals.

In his 22 years as archbishop, McIntyre personally directed the physical construction --parish churches, grammar and high schools, seminaries, hospitals and clinics, charity and social welfare agencies, hospices and retirement homes--of what in his time became the largest archdiocese in the world. It coincided, of course, with the golden age of population growth and construction in Southern California as millions of Americans, so many of them Catholic, poured into the region. Surveying the list of completed construction projects in the appendixes of Weber’s biography, one speculates that there was hardly a week, much less a month, during these years when McIntyre was not bringing a new building on line.


With equal vigor, McIntyre threw himself into the creation of a Roman Catholic social and political infrastructure comparable to what he knew in New York. Under his direction, the church in Los Angeles became bold, assertive and, some would say, triumphal. McIntyre easily took his place alongside the other great cardinals of his era--Spellman of New York, Cushing of Boston, Meyer of Chicago, Shehan of Baltimore, O’Boyle of Washington, D.C.--the last generation of Roman Catholic churchmen to exercise their authority boldly, unambiguously and unapologetically in a major metropolitan area. The red hat of a cardinal, after all, not only conferred a spiritual rank and honored a specific archdiocese, it also empowered urban churchmen in an urbanizing era to lead, promote and protect a largely immigrant church, still testing its American footing. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was certainly aware of such power, which was why less than a decade after the defeat of Al Smith by Herbert Hoover in 1928 for the presidency--in part because of Smith’s Roman Catholicism--Roosevelt had the chutzpah (to mix metaphors) to invite Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago for an overnight stay at the White House.

McIntyre was himself a lifelong Democrat of Roosevelt’s stripe, although one would be hard-pressed to recognize him as a Democrat if one depended only on the hostile press he received in the 1960s. The Second Vatican Council, after all, ushered in an era in which the Catholic intelligentsia, pseudo-intelligentsia and clerical wannabes no longer wished to be unambiguously governed by grand churchmen in red hats. Sadly, this kindly (most of the time) and, in his own way, holy prelate became the scapegoat for those pushing the ecclesial revolutions, so frequently self-destructive, of the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council.

Nowhere was this conflict more dramatically apparent than in the contretemps between McIntyre and the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, headed by the charismatic Sister Anita Caspary. Not surprisingly, given the accepted scenario of this conflict (autocratic cardinal versus reformist nuns), Weber attempts a certain chiaroscuro of motivation and engagement on both sides of the conflict. The sisters, Weber argues, were already in a condition of communal meltdown before the controversy emerged. At their mother house in Montecito, the Dutch theologian-psychologist Father Adrian van Kamp and a team of psychological professionals were already offering a series of 1960s-style group encounters, in which all the community rules were suspended. A number of sisters were hostile to these sessions, sensing that such free-wheeling efforts to get in touch with inner feelings, ambiguities and ambivalences would ultimately destroy the sisterhood in its present format. Here was emerging, after all, one of the church’s thorniest issues--the role of women--that to this day is still a point of contentious debate.


And what better figure could there be for the other side of the dialectic--to wear, in this case, the black hat of a villain instead of a cardinal’s red hat--than the great cardinal himself? Yet in this locomotive of a biography, Weber offers meticulous evidence that McIntyre did not deliberately interfere with the governance of the Immaculate Heart Sisters. He especially did not tell them that they had to wear their habits, as was widely reported in the press. The cardinal, Weber argues, turned the entire matter over to the Sacred Congregation of Religious in Rome, where it properly belonged. Eventually, the Immaculate Heart Sisters divided into two groups, one avant-garde and the other traditional. Weber argues that the cardinal, sensing that it was a no-win situation, remained aloof from the debate. But no matter: By this time, the cardinal was playing a near-mythological role and certainly a psychological role in one of the most profound men-versus-women controversies to emerge in the American Catholic Church. Sadly, the reformed Immaculate Heart community was unable to sustain itself. A significant percentage of a generation of nuns, after all, wanted out of religious life, as so many of them had already discovered during the group therapy sessions in Montecito. Most regrettably, the archdiocese lost Immaculate Heart College of Los Angeles, an institution en route to becoming the Mills College, the Sarah Lawrence College, the Mount Holyoke College or the Scripps College of American Catholic women’s higher education.

By the 1970s, the cardinal, so excoriated for his alleged reactionism in the final decade of his long and productive career, had resigned his office and was working as a parish priest at St. Basil’s Church on Wilshire Boulevard. Nearly 50 years earlier, McIntyre had been called to an administrative assignment at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the chancery from St. Gabriel’s parish in New York City, after less than two years working as a parish priest. Now attired in a simple black cassock, the retired prelate resumed his parish career, becoming a volunteer parochial assistant, hearing confessions, answering sick calls and kibitzing with parishioners after Mass on Sunday morning.

Those who would continue to judge McIntyre from the perspective of the 1960s, seeing in him an ogre of obscurantism and reaction, must come to terms with the service and simplicity of his life in this final decade. He was not a perfect man, nor was he, perhaps, a charismatic and prophetic leader. He was, rather, a New York Irishman who had glimpsed something grand, something transcendent, in the life of a parish priest at one with his people. Fate had another role in store for him. It would be his duty to bring to Los Angeles the churchmanship of New York City.


In the end, however, laying aside his scarlet robes, James Francis McIntyre rediscovered the peace and satisfaction of the parochial ministry. Nearly 70 years earlier, the prospect of such a life as a parish priest had turned the young banker away from Wall Street and toward the healing witness of the rectory and confessional--and the luminous power of the altar.