Catholic Action: A rift in the Iron Curtain, by James P Cannon

Author: 
James P Cannon

Trotskyist literature that deals head-on with organised religion is something of a rarity. Not so in the USA in the 1940s and 50s. The American "Orthodox Trotskyists" of the Socialist Workers Party published a stream of articles and a pamphlet denouncing the Cardinals, bishops and priests of the Catholic Church for their reactionary role in politics and American society. This article, by James Patrick Cannon, was one such attack. Reviewing a novel, Moon Gaffney, by Harry Sylvester, Cannon followed Sylvester in portraying the social and mental world of Catholic Irish-America. It is taken from The Militant, 14 June 1947.

The Catholic Church and Irish-American Catholicism played a powerful part in creating the dark reaction which engulfed the USA during the Cold War, which began at about the time this review was written, with Stalinist Russia. Catholic Irish-Americans were prominent in organising witchunts of leftists, in which even liberals were amongst their targets. There was a distinct ethnic-sectarian dimension to the witchunting. Jews were often the hunted and the hunters often Irish-American Catholics. One of them, Senator Joseph McCarthy, gave his name to the witchhunt. Robert F. Kennedy, who would be a “liberal” in the 60s, worked as one of Joe McCarthy’s attorneys at the height of this McCarthyism.

Today the Catholic Church in the USA, as in many other countries, is convulsed by sex-scandals, involving the abuse by priests of children in their care. Cannon depicts the Catholic Church in which paedophile priests could do such things with impunity. His comments on Irish-America are decidedly not “politically correct”, so it is worth noting that he himself, as his name indicates, was Irish-American.

That Irish-Catholic chauvinism is still alive in Ireland was shown recently when in a referendum a big majority voted to refuse citizenship to children of foreign parents born in Ireland .

James P Cannon was the main leader of post-Trotsky “orthodox” Trotskyism. We have criticised his work in that capacity. He was, nonetheless, one of the best of socialist journalists, whose work is an important part of the heritage of the Marxist movement today. We take this article from the collection of his journalism, Notebook of an Agitator, published in 1958. Cannon’s title was a play on the term then coming into use for the border which cordoned off Russia and its East European satellites from the rest of the world.

Sean Matgamna

The decay and corruption of present-day society finds its expression in all fields, and not the least in the degradation of the noble art of portraying life through fiction. The novelists, to be sure, are freer and far superior to the professional writers in other fields: but they, too, find it necessary to consider the money angle and keep away from themes which are excluded from honest treatment by an unspoken censorship.

The Catholic Church, for example, with its vast ramifications, and its reactionary power ever more brutally and arrogantly asserted, is virtually unexplored territory. Since James T Farrell wrote his Chicago novels, I do not know and have not heard of a modern American writer who has touched the Catholic Church without slobbering over it and bending the knee before it. An iron curtain of silence and suppression has shielded the doings and misdoings of this colossal institution from true report, as effectively in fiction as in the press and on the radio and the screen.

All the more welcome and important, therefore, is the publication, of a new novel last week which chips open a chink in the iron curtain and throws some light on an underworld of avarice, obscurantism and privilege, dominated by an interlocking directorate of Tammany Hall and the Catholic hierarchy.

In Moon Gaffney Harry Sylvester tells the story of a young Irish Catholic made and trained for politics. He was doing well at it before he reached the age of 30, and was scheduled to go higher. much higher, with the assured support and backing of the Church and the “organisation”, as the Tammany banditti innocently describe their self-serving machine.

The going was all the easier for Moon because he fervently believed in both institutions, and thought politics was the ordained way for a sensible young fellow with the gift of gab and a liking for people to do favours for his friends and make something for himself at the same time. As for the Church, which he also look for granted as God’s representative on earth, it not only raised no objections to this somewhat dubious philosophy and practice, but took a big hand in the business and shared in the privileges.

Moon, the son of a deputy fire commissioner who was a power in the “Hall”, and well-liked on his own account, was already a favoured man in the inner circle of the organisation, holding down a sinecure clerkship which gave him plenty of time to get around. He was entrusted with confidential errands for the higher-ups and deferentially treated by the lower orders who were looking for favours: slated for the Party’s nomination for the State Assembly at the next election, with higher honours and offices looming ahead; drinking plenty, like all the others in his crowd, and having a good time.

The world looked rosy and the future assured until he stumbled over a cherry stone which he didn’t even see and broke his neck. Moon’s faults, which eventually disqualified him, were good nature and a strain of conscientiousness which he didn’t fully understand and didn’t fully believe in, and a glimmering, although only a glimmering, of social consciousness.

One night after a drinking bout he was steered into the office of the Catholic Worker. This is a little sheet put out by an unsponsored lay grouping of Catholics who are worried about the sufferings of the poor. It appears that they want, somehow or other, to reconcile institutionalised Catholicism with genuine charity, justice, human brotherhood, etc. This is quite a large order, and the group is not favourably regarded by the well-heeled hierarchs who prefer the flesh pots of Egypt to the locusts and wild honey of the desert. The meek and lowly Jesus stuff is all right for preaching, but these high priests of mammon want no part of it in practice; it smacks of “communism” something they are very allergic to.

Moon slept off his drunk in the Catholic Worker office and the next morning, feeling rather heroic, helped the volunteer staff to pass out hot coffee and day-old bread to a line of derelicts who showed up there regularly for handouts. Up to then he had scarcely noticed that there were hungry people around.

At the Catholic Worker office he was told that a block of slum tenements owned by the Church was about to be torn down to make room for more profitable buildings, and that the poor tenants had been given only 30 days to get out.

This was a double jolt to Moon Gaffney. He didn’t know that the Church owned and collected rent from slum properties; and he couldn’t believe their story that it was impossible for the poor families, some of whom were Catholic parishioners, to get a hearing at the chancery to plead for a delay in the eviction notice.

On a generous impulse he used his political influence to arrange a meeting with the Monsignor for a spokesman of the tenants, and he went along. That was the beginning of his downfall, although he didn’t suspect it at the time. The Monsignor didn’t like this sort of interference in the business affairs of the Church.

Later, when it was already too late, a priest explained to him: “Oh, I know you didn’t do it deliberately, Moon” the priest said, holding up a restraining hand. “It was an impolitic thing to do that was all, the sort of thing that might embarrass the associates of a young politician. That might give them pause as to his future reliability.”

Not satisfied with this faux pas, Moon again not realising what he was doing —secured a friend of his to act as attorney for a struggling union in which the Catholic Worker group was interested. Moon felt very good about this gesture. It gave him the double satisfaction of helping out some poor people, and at the same time doing a favour for his young lawyer friend, who was badly in need of the fee of $3,000 a year which the job paid.

But this good deed also boomeranged. The union was in a fight of some kind with a reactionary and therefore more respectable organisation on the docks run by Bernie Brosnan (a thin disguise for Joe Ryan). Brosnan was in solid with the Church, which had written the other union down in its black book as a “communist” front.

The net result was that the young lawyer got in bad with his wife’s family for going to work for an outlaw union and had to give it up: her old man was a power in the political machine and he couldn’t afford to antagonise him. As for poor Moon, he got tagged definitely as a man whose reliability could not be depended on. Then his father, the influential “commissioner”, died and the wolves closed in for the kill. Before Moon Gaffney knew what had struck him, he was out on his ear, his promising career as a politician at an end.

The story part of the novel is integrated with a moving panorama of an upper middle-class Irish Catholic community, with priests and politicians working in cahoots, dominating the scene. Such a job has not been done before in this country to my knowledge.

Politics, of course, including the malodorous municipal variety, has been quite adequately treated. The fact that Tammany politicians, like the others, are in politics for what they can get out of it is not a new revelation in American fiction. What is new is the thoroughgoing treatment of the role of the Catholic clergy in politics, and their totalitarian interference in every concern of the daily lives, in the manners, morals and incentives of their parishioners.

The author’s account of all this bears all the greater stamp of authenticity because it obviously comes from the inside. The book is not written from an anti-Catholic, but simply from an anti-clerical point of view. The characters whom the author has created to deliver the most blistering philippics against the greedy and materialistic clergy, are all Catholics who aim at the apparently modest but in reality unattainable goal of restoring organised Catholicism, with its huge property interests and uncounted funds, to the simple ideals of Christian charity and justice which inspired the barefooted Christians of ancient days.

But even within this narrow framework, a terrific indictment is brought against the higher ranks of the Catholic clergy of New York in general, and its Irish section in particular. "I’m half Irish” says the Catholic newspaperman Schneider, “and I hate their insane pride of race and of religion and their incredible fatuousness… What I hate is a priesthood that lacks both charity and humility and has misled and confused its people until they mistake black for white, hate for love and darkness for light. A priesthood that has substituted chastity for charity and frequently a chastity so warped and misinformed that its ultimate fruits compare with those of lust.”

The author of this book is no Fancy Dan, and he doesn’t spar with his antagonists when he gets them into the literary ring. He is strictly a slugger: he hauls off and lets them have it without euphemisms, allusions or indirections of any kind whatever. This man is blazing mad. The pages of the book are scorched with his anger

In scene after scene he describes and denounces the ignorance, malice, hatred and greed of the Irish clerical bigwigs, and their reactionary hostility to every progressive thought. He exposes their anti-Semitism openly expressed, their vicious prejudice against the Negroes, and their megalomaniac race theory, reminiscent of Hitler’s, that the Irish — of all people! — are the chosen ones and the greatest of the earth.

Even the Italians who belong to the same church are despised and openly derided as “Ginnies”. A well-to-do Irish girl is scolded by a priest for electing to serve as a volunteer in the maternity ward at the hospital, helping out with “Ginny babies”, in preference to the more rarefied atmosphere of “the sewing room”, where the select circle of Irish Catholic ladies do their charity work in the preparation of bandages and the dissemination of gossip.

Moon Gaffney is a horror story if there ever was one. It depicts a priest-supervised system of marriages for convenience and marriages for money, in which the prospect of bringing more money into the parish of the interested priest is shrewdly calculated. What could be more horrible than that?

The book reveals a priesthood obsessed with sex repression, thunderously expounding the hateful dogma that sex is sinful, dirty, unnatural, something to be ashamed of.

Overriding all is the devastating picture of the Catholic hierarchy’s subservience to wealth and power; their selfish and brutally avaricious participation in the privileges and the callous disregard for the bitter consequences the whole system as for its innumerable victims.

They insanely hate “communism”, by which they designate every kind of progressive thought or protest against the most flagrant discrimination and injustice. They tolerate no encroachment on property rights or privileges. Even the pathetic Catholic Worker group, with their Christian meekness and their utopian idea that humility and charity can conquer greedy privilege armed to the teeth, is hated and persecuted as a “communist group”.

There is a savage irony which the author most probably didn’t notice in the circumstances that his Catholic protagonist came to grief, with the consent and connivance of the priests, for something no more than the mildest liberal or any decent man of good will would do without attaching any great importance to his actions.

The bare fact that a man only half consciously performing a few simple humane deeds can be presented as the hero of a novel in an Irish-Catholic setting, bringing the unrestrained wrath of the clergy down on his head, gives a certain measure — perhaps more than the author understood or intended — of the black reactionary mentality of these ecclesiastics who wear the cloak of religion to serve and support a system of exploitation and discrimination.

Moon Gaffney is a warning to all those who strive for social progress that they confront a formidable and uncompromising enemy in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. There is increasing evidence of this in every field. It is high time to take note of it and to speak out loud about it. It will take more than charity and humility to cope with this monster.

Harry Sylvester deserves praise and his book deserves a wide reading. He has thrown some light on the unpublicised inner workings of a dark and evil institution. And that is what the people need.