- The FBI and the Catholic Church, 1935–1962
Scholars and commentators have long noted the strong affinity that existed behind J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Roman Catholic Church in the United States during the early Cold War, a relationship that had much to do with a shared anticommunism. In the 1963 classic Beyond the Melting Pot, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed that during the McCarthy era, as Harvard men were investigated for their alleged un-Americanism, it was “Fordham men” who did the checking.
This period is the subject of Steve Rosswurm’s new book. What enabled this mutually beneficial relationship, he suggests, was a convergence (but not fusion) of values. While the communist issue was a major reason for Hoover’s popularity with Catholics, there was also a shared commitment to what Rosswurm calls “gendered values and institutional authority.” That is to say, both were dedicated to preserving a patriarchal mode of leadership, and both saw religion as strengthening that model. And both were dedicated to forming “real men.”
During the FBI’s early years, Hoover focused his recruiting efforts on white Protestant males from the small towns of the Midwest and the South. But beginning in the 1940s, he expanded his efforts to Catholic colleges and universities in the Mid-Atlantic region and beyond. He met a positive reception. Fordham University President Robert I. Gannon, S.J., commented that “the FBI and Fordham have the same ideas.” Like the FBI, the Jesuits, known as “the Pope’s Marines,” believed in forming disciplined men dedicated to preserving the moral order. The University of Notre Dame, according to its president (and future cardinal) John F. O’Hara, C.S.C., was a “man’s school” that promoted “Red-blooded Americanism.” Both schools would provide a large number of FBI personnel through the years.
Hoover considered the Catholic Church “the greatest protective influence in our nation today.” For both the Protestant director and his Catholic associates, Rosswurm notes, “Secularism . . . was the key to understanding all of America’s problems.” [End Page 77] Hoover gave due attention to Catholic leaders, who reciprocated in kind. Although he did not cultivate close personal private relationships with any particular bishop (with the possible exception of Baltimore’s Archbishop Michael J. Curley), he cultivated a close association with them in regard to their shared public concerns.
On the other side, the admiration occasionally devolved into hero worship. In 1953, for example, Archbishop Richard J. Cushing of Boston equated Hoover with quoting the pope. Catholic periodicals contributed to the cult of personality surrounding Hoover. Our Sunday Visitor, one of the most conservative American Catholic periodicals, regularly reprinted his speeches, as did The Brooklyn Tablet. In time, some Catholic spokespersons would equate anti-FBI sentiments or expressions with anti-Catholicism. In other words, if Hoover wasn’t actually Catholic, he should have been.
Rosswurm sheds new light on previously examined figures, such as Father John Cronin and Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, both the subject of biographies. Cronin became famous for his 1945 report on domestic communism, which the U.S. bishops commissioned. Rosswurm delineates the extent to which the FBI cooperated with Cronin in compiling information for the report (and possibly even writing parts of it).
He also reexamines the extent to which Rice (long a subject of Rosswurm’s scholarly interests) himself cooperated with the FBI during his years as a labor priest. In addition, the author brings attention to two other largely ignored characters. Edward Tamm, Hoover’s assistant at the Bureau, did much to cultivate Catholic connections in Chicago and elsewhere. Edward Conway, the Jesuit whose activities as an informant helped purge “leftist” influence in the National Committee for Atomic Information during the early Cold War, also receives significant attention here for the first time.
This close relationship points to an uncritical approach to the larger culture on the part of pre-conciliar Catholic leaders, many of whom assumed that the “American way of life” was inherently incapable...