Thursday, 6 May 2010
Msgr John Tracy Ellis was the author of a two-volume life of the legendary James Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore (pictured above) which according to Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley PhD, priest of the archdiocese of New York and Professor of Historical Theology at Fordham University, “set new standards for clerical biographies and won wide respect among historians”.
Cardinal Gibbons? Legendary? But one example: The story goes that at a dinner party the wife of a wealthy Baltimore businessman, and hence by definition a Protestant, asked the cardinal what he thought of papal infallibility. The cardinal confidentially replied so that the whole table might hear: “All I know, ma’am, is that every time I have met His Holiness he has called me Jibbons!”
In fairness it should be noted that as the second youngest bishop present at the First Vatican Council ― he was known to his fellow American bishops as “the boy bishop”; aged just 34 years and 3 weeks when he was consecrated bishop on 15 August 1868, he was six days younger than Jeremiah Francis Shanahan who had been consecrated Bishop of Harrisburg during the previous month (I don’t know whether it was meant as a joke or not, but on the Twelfth of July) ― he had voted in favour of papal infallibility.
Who can doubt that in this hour of the Church’s need some papal infallibility, or even just good decision making, is urgently required?
As to Msgr Shelley’s comment, he emphatically meant “historians” and not just “Church historians” when he praised Msgr Ellis’s Magnus opus. For Msgr Ellis was an intellectual giant. A big fish in the small pond of American Catholic intellectual life, he was yet a big fish in the big pond of American intellectual life.
Msgr Ellis was a product of a small liberal arts college run by the French-founded teaching order, the Clerics of Saint Viator (a 4th century catechist in Lyons). Obscure before it became defunct in 1939, St Viator College, Bourbonnais, Illinois, was also the alma mater of Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J Sheen. Now granting that decisive and true papal leadership is our prime urgent need, this is one man who should live at this hour. As the Church is beset and beleaguered across and throughout the media and on both sides of the Atlantic, what would we not give for a latter day Fulton J Sheen? (Who, incidentally, studied and taught on both sides of the Atlantic.)
Later, many years after graduating, Msgr Ellis would say: “Had I the power to bring Saint Viator College back into existence, and that with a substantial endowment, for a variety of reasons I should hesitate to do so.” While I wouldn’t say the same about my old school ― Our Lady’s High, Motherwell; and I mean as it was when I was there: selective and all boys ― how many others would say precisely the same about their old Catholic schools? And, of course, we don’t have any Catholic universities in the UK.
Msgr Ellis came to prominence as Professor of American church history at The Catholic University of America, Washington, and as the managing editor of The Catholic Historical Review. He would later move to the University of San Francisco, not entirely for health reasons. In May of 1955, while still resident in Washington, he gave an address which was subsequently published in the autumn issue of the Fordham University quarterly, Thought, under the title “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life.”
Questioning the quality of the education available in Catholic higher education establishments and their fitness for purpose as regards their role in producing an intellectually astute Catholic priesthood and laity, this caused a storm which rages even to the present day, as was evidenced by the recent furore over the president of Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama to both give the commencement address and to receive an honorary doctorate.
Msgr Ellis took as his starting point a comment of Sir Denis W. Brogan, Glaswegian and Professor of Political Science at Cambridge who was an expert on both French and American political history. Brogan had said in 1941 that “in no Western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in the country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful.”
Ellis, more in sorrow than in anger, made two observations on this quote, the first being: “No well-informed American Catholic will attempt to challenge that statement.” Well, I am not an American Catholic but a Scottish one; and, as such, were Brogan’s statement to be uttered today I would challenge it. For nowadays, here in Great Britain the intellectual prestige of Catholicism is absolutely rock bottom.
And in Brogan’s native Scotland it’s even lower.
But I would have to agree with the second of Msgr Ellis’s observation. He went on to aver: “Admittedly, the weakest aspect of the Church in this country lies in its failure to produce national leaders and to exercise commanding influence in intellectual circles…” Of course, I am again thinking of Great Britain and, and most especially, Scotland, and not the USA.
Msgr Ellis returned to his theme in 1966 when he gave another lecture which was later published as an essay entitled “A Commitment to Truth”. Here he quoted with approval from a then little-known German theologian who had been theological advisor to Cardinal Joseph Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, during the Second Vatican Council which had but recently ended. This junior German professor had written that what the Church needed was “not adulators to extol the status quo, but men whose humility and obedience are no less than their passion for truth.”
Ellis, reflecting and expanding on the thoughts of his Teutonic muse, warned that it would be impossible for the Church to realize the wonderful aspirations of the Council “unless her teaching, her intellectual apostolate, her liturgy and worship, yes, and the lives of her sons and daughters, bear a note of authenticity and carry the credentials of truth and honesty.”
Though this was not Msgr Ellis’s concern as he talked and wrote, it would be absolutely no use whatsoever if we had a wonderfully educated, vibrant and committed Catholic laity ― and that was the good Monsignor’s main concern ― if they were to be let down by their Church leadership, the Catholic episcopal hierarchy.
And, to be perfectly honest about it, all these years later here in Great Britain and, and more specifically, in Scotland we are still waiting for our bishops to give a proper lead in that teaching, intellectual apostolate and liturgy and worship in order that we might more fully live a more authentic Catholic Christian life as envisioned by the Council fathers.
But it isn’t all their own fault.
And, thankfully, that then little-known German theologian who inspired Msgr Ellis can do something about this. At the time Msgr Ellis wrote of him in 1966, he was in the process of relocating from Münster to Tübingen. Today he’s getting ready to visit Scotland. For the Rev Fr Dr Joseph Ratzinger is now His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.
A wiser man than me, Fr Tim Finigan, wrote in his blog (The hermeneutic of continuity): “Through the Sacrament they have received, Bishops are stewards of the Lord’s gift. They are ‘stewards of the mysteries of God’ (I Cor 4: 1); as such, they must be found to be ‘faithful’ and ‘wise’ (cf. Lk 12: 41-48). This requires them to administer the Lord’s gift in the right way, so that it is not left concealed in some hiding place but bears fruit, and the Lord may end by saying to the administrator: ‘Since you were dependable in a small matter I will put you in charge of larger affairs’ (cf. Mt 25: 14-30; Lk 19: 11-27).”
I couldn’t have put it better myself. And to help them, the first thing that the Pope should do is order a reassessment of our diocesan structure. Have we too many bishops? Or too few? How are they selected and trained? Who is due to go and who should come in? And for those who might come in, how can we best use them? Can we improve our metropolitan structure?
But before we can decide where we want to go, might it not be a good idea to ask how we got to where we currently are?