[James Patrick Shannon was born in 1921. He was ordained a priest in 1946 and a bishop in 1965. He and his wife Ruth were married on August 2, 1969. He died on August 28, 2003, Connie's 71st birthday.]
Former Bishop Still Reluctant in His Dissent
RELUCTANT DISSENTER By James Patrick Shannon; Crossroad; $19.95, 252 pages
By Zachary Karabell, Los Angeles Times, Saturday, January 2, 1999
In 1969, Bishop James Patrick Shannon became the first U.S. Roman Catholic bishop ever to resign from his office over a matter of conscience. That matter was the papal encyclical "Humanae Vitae," issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968. In it, the pope reaffirmed the rigid doctrinal prohibition against contraception even in marriage, and though the decree was not issued under the seal of papal infallibility, it was nonetheless binding on all priests and bishops.
Unable to endorse the pope's doctrine and unwilling to tell his parishioners that if they used contraception, they were committing a grave sin, Shannon found himself in a hopelessly compromised position and resigned.
For a brief period in the 1960s, Shannon was at the center of the vast changes that swept through the Catholic Church. As a bishop, he was a voting member of Vatican II, the ecumenical council convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962. The purpose of the council, said Pope John, was "to renew the life of Christian people and to adjust the norm of ecclesiastical law to the needs and thoughts of our time." To that end, more than 2000 bishops assembled in the Vatican over a period of four years to discuss every aspect of canonical law and practice. Shannon was present for the fourth session, and his views placed him on the more radical end of the ecclesiastical spectrum.
Yet, in demeanor and tone, Shannon was anything but radical. He was and is humble, self-effacing and deeply loyal to the church. Even writing 30 years after what must have been troubling times for him, he remains deferential and respectful of cardinals and bishops who did not extend him the same courtesy. That essential goodness may have accounted for his success as a prelate, but it is a frustrating quality in an autobiographer. His story reads like a primer for a proper Christian life. Not too much ambition, nothing negative to say even about men who wished him ill, kind words for the many people who touched him through the years. In short, a good man, but not a good writer. A compelling life, but not a compelling book. Shannon was drawn to the priesthood in the belief that "the Almighty God had given [him] an abundance of blessings, that most of these had come to [him] through the Catholic Church and a Catholic family." He dutifully describes his years at the seminary in Minnesota, his days as a priest in St. Paul, his time as a graduate student at Yale, his decade as a professor and then president of the College of St. Thomas, and his appointment as an auxiliary bishop for Minneapolis-St. Paul.
His narrative then plunges into his tumultuous four years as a bishop, his confrontation with the ultraconservative and truculent Cardinal James McIntyre of Los Angeles, his tenure as press spokesman for the national bishops conference, and his increasing dismay at the inflexibility of the bishops in the wake of Vatican II. He concludes with several chapters on his life after 1969, as a lawyer, a husband, and an administrator for philanthropic organizations in Minnesota. Woven through the narrative are hints of the drama that surrounded Shannon, but unless you know the larger context, these hints aren't sufficient to bring to the fore just how consequential his story actually is. Shannon was caught amid forces larger than himself. For the Catholic Church, the 1960s were a time of profound unease. Between the shifting role of women worldwide and the population explosion in the Third World, the church was facing its most severe demographic and theological challenges in centuries.
After he was rebuked by McIntyre, Shannon was written about in most major newspapers and became a lightning rod for the controversy over birth control. He chose to leave the church rather than challenge the papacy, and he purposely withdrew from public life out of concern that he would further divide the American Catholic community.
If anything, the church has become even more opposed to contraception. Its inability to embrace even the deferential dissent of Shannon led to the rapid decline in seminary enrollments and to a dearth of new priests. Had Shannon delved into this larger story, his biography would have been that much more illuminating. As it is, his story calls to mind Shakespeare's Malvolio, who wryly observed that some men are born great, others achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them. For a moment, James Patrick Shannon had greatness thrust upon him. He may not have been able to seize the opportunity, but then again, he lived more in those years than most of us live in a lifetime.
Zachary Karabell is the author of several books on American culture and wrote the chapter on religion for "The Columbia History of the 20th Century."
A PRIEST FOR ALL SEASONS
By Eugene Cullen Kennedy
Religion News Service, December 2003
Jim Shannon broke free of the framework of time on August 28, entering eternity as easily as a man who had been there many times before. Any guards on duty smiled and waved him through, for how could a barrier be raised against this extraordinary man who spent his life breaking them down?
He stands in memory as a mediator, a priest, and bishop forever, even though he resigned from the official side of these tides before half the Roman Catholics in the country were even born. He was always in the midst of people, often in their joy and always in their woe, that confessor who always had the long lines as he listened first to the left, then to his right, reconciling people to themselves, to each other, to lives that may have seemed ordinary to them but never to him.
He left the official church but he never left the Catholic Church that he identified always as his home, even during the generation and a half through which he waited for Rome to grant permission for him and his beloved Ruth to be married in a Catholic ceremony. Even then, he scrupulously followed the Vatican's conditions.
They drove a hundred miles to a place, as Rome specified, where he was supposedly unknown and could give no scandal. He complied with this demeaning condition because he loved the church and, although he could see through these parole officers' dictates, he could also look beyond them to the human structures whose flaws did not surprise him and whose unifying function he would never dishonor.
Jim Shannon left the administrative church because he was not only an educator and a bishop in St. Paul but also a downtown pastor who listened to and learned from his people, gaining a firsthand sense of their efforts to love each other and live good lives. He felt their anguish to ease their hearts long before politicians began feeling their pain to get their votes.
Shortly after Vatican Council II, he accepted a request by a fellow bishop to appear on a national television program about the church. His comments revealed his pastoral understanding of why so many Catholics rejected, in good conscience, the official ban of birth control.
The late Cardinal Francis Mclntyre attacked him, demanding that he be censured. His own archbishop, thinking of the promising ecclesiastical career that lay before him, warned Jim that, if he persisted, he would never become a cardinal.
This was an excruciating time for Jim, who loved the church but loved its good people even more. He once told me of a pastoral incident that symbolized the great fissure that had opened up between ordinary, hard working people and their bishops.
A young laboring man told him of coming home on his birthday and, even though he and his wife were scraping along, she had made him his favorite dinner and baked him a special cake. When they were cleaning up later, he reached over and clasped her shoulder gently. She froze in place, lowered her head, looked away. Beyond all the theological arguments and abstract instructions, Jim saw into the hearts of the young couple and felt the coldness of the official shadow of teaching about birth control that fell across their lives to kill the simplest and most profound of their moments together.
He followed human experience back to its headwaters, where he found the truth missing from the humanity maps drawn by many church leaders to control people and, of course, further their own ecclesiastical careers. Not many of them would have kept faith with their conscience, as Jim did, after being warned that he would never become a cardinal that way.
Jim Shannon was as squared off and Irish-looking as Spencer Tracy, who said actors should know the lines, be on time, avoid bumping into the furniture, skip fancy stuff, just concentrate and speak the lines simply and truthfully.
Jim, never even tempted to fancy stuff, entered everybody's troubles at the right time. He didn't bump into the furniture, but many bishops, once critical of him, have since tipped over everything in the sanctuary.
Jim knew his lines because they were right out of the gospel, and because he spoke them simply and truthfully, they had the power to comfort, encourage and heal everyone who heard them. In the gospel question, which of these men was justified in God's sight, the men-for-one-season bishops who once condemned him, or Jim Shannon, the man for all seasons who never became a cardinal but never stopped being a priest?