James Patrick Shannon, a former bishop of the Catholic Church whose liberal stances on social issues in the 1960s led to his being labeled a heretic and his resignation, died Aug. 28. He was 82.
Shannon, who resigned because he opposed Humane Vitae, a papal encyclical on human life that reaffirmed the church’s prohibition of artificial birth control, had been hospitalized in St. Louis Park, near Minneapolis, after a stroke.
Shannon’s resignation as auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1968 was a shock to the progressive wing of the Catholic Church in the U.S. It caused protests and letters of outrage by his supporters, both clergy and members of the laity.
He was one of the first U.S. Catholic bishops to publicly object to Washington’s policies in Vietnam and to support the Civil Rights movement.
In his book, “Reluctant Dissenter” (1999), he described his experiences as a liberal, frequently at odds with his conservative colleagues. Los Angeles Cardinal James McIntyre was his most truculent opponent.
Despite what he later described as a series of betrayals by his peers, Shannon remained loyal to the church and showed no malice toward his enemies in his writing.
He told the Washington Post in a 1987 interview that he decided to resign after realizing that “it’s never going to be any different than this, and you have to face reality.”
Even after he married, returned to law school at age 49 and built a new career in the nonprofit sector, Shannon remained a practicing Catholic.
His resignation was a dramatic turn of events in what had been a particularly promising career in the church. Shannon, who was born and raised in St. Paul, Minn., was ordained in 1946, earned a PhD in American Studies at Yale University in 1955, and was the youngest priest appointed president of the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, at age 35. He became an auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis at 44.
From the time he was appointed a bishop, however, he remained out of step with a powerful conservative wing.
When he accepted an invitation from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 to attend the funeral in Selma, Ala., of a murdered civil rights advocate, he broke ranks with his colleagues in the conference of bishops.
Two years later, when Shannon spoke publicly against the Vietnam War, he was criticized again for breaking ranks. His fellow bishops had not yet issued an official document stating their position on the war. McIntyre and New York Cardinal Francis Spellman complained about Shannon to the Vatican.
Shannon was warned by a papal representative, for failing to be “sensitive” to the higher-level cardinals, and advised to keep silent on the subject of Vietnam. “You could have a great career in the church, you could be archbishop,” Shannon recalled the Vatican representative cautioning him.
His most devastating reprimand came in summer 1968, after he was appointed to moderate a television documentary, “The New American Catholic,” that aired on NBC. The program looked at the effects of Vatican II, the ecumenical council convened in 1962 by Pope John Paul XXIII to “renew” the church and, “adjust the norm of ecclesiastical law to the needs and thoughts of our time.”
The show covered topical questions such as marriage for clergymen and the ordination of women. Shannon said he favored open discussions on these issues. McIntyre issued a news release condemning Shannon’s comments and the program as a whole.
He then wrote a letter to leading clergy as well as the Vatican accusing Shannon of heresy. He also called for a meeting of bishops to take official disciplinary action. The vote fell against Shannon, 7-3, with eight bishops abstaining.
“My great pride in being an American Catholic bishop suffered a blow that day, from which it has never recovered,” Shannon wrote in his memoir.
That same fateful summer, Pope Paul VI upheld the church’s condemnation of artificial methods of birth control. Shannon considered it “a rigid teaching,” and believed that birth control within marriage was acceptable.
He knew he could not uphold the Pope’s teaching. Failing to do so amounted to breaking his vow of obedience, he believed, so he resigned.
In response to his letter of resignation, an archbishop and delegate from Rome tried to persuade him to take a position in South America. Supporters protested that it was an effort to exile Shannon.
Within one year of his resignation, in the fall of 1968, Shannon married Ruth Wilkinson, a widow with whom he had been acquainted since 1964. She survives him.
“I knew myself well enough to know that I couldn’t go on alone,” Shannon told the Washington Post in the 1987 interview.
The couple settled in Minnesota, where Shannon worked as executive director of several corporate foundations, including General Mills. He retired in 1988.
He was a regular worshiper at Holy Name of Jesus, his parish church in Medina, Minn., where 60 clergymen celebrated his funeral Mass on Sept. 5.
“He was no longer a bishop, but he was in full relationship with the church,” Richard Pates, auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press at Shannon’s funeral. “This was his spiritual home.”