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  • The FBI and the Catholic Church, 1935-1962
  • Thomas C. Reeves
The FBI and the Catholic Church, 1935-1962. By Steve Rosswurm. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 2009. Pp. xi, 330. ISBN 978-1-558-49729-0.)

The author, a professor of history at Lake Forest College in Illinois, spent two decades filing Freedom of Information and Privacy Act requests with the FBI, attempting to learn how close the relationship was between J. Edgar Hoover's investigators and high Roman Catholic prelates in this country during the Depression, World War II, the Second Red Scare, and the Kennedy administration. This book is largely a recounting of what was in the files, supplemented by other scholarly works and interpreted in the standard left-of-center approach. Sadly, Steve Rosswurm's research reveals little new information, and this study will probably be of importance only to a handful of specialists. The book also has some irritating flaws.

After all of his labors, Rosswurm discovered, apparently to his shock, that in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, J. Edgar Hoover and his top agents, several leading Catholic clergy, and the public in general believed in Christianity, patriotism, the traditional family, and anticommunism; perhaps worse, they rejected sodomy. All of these Americans, he contends, had "a profound distaste for modernity" (p. 71). That would draw titters in a historical methodology class. [End Page 864]

We also read that the FBI engaged in some underhanded tactics to defend the morality and safety of the vast majority of Americans. This is not exactly news. Rosswurm informs us as well that church figures such as Cardinal Francis Spellman, Cardinal John O'Hara, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, and Father John F. Cronin, not to mention numerous Jesuits, shared the values of the period and helped the FBI in numerous, unofficial ways such as exposing communists. A few of his details are interesting (the chapter on Cronin is the book's best), but the thesis will surprise no scholar in the field. Rosswurm sheds no new light on Spellman or Sheen. Curiously, he fails even to mention Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), a Catholic with close ties to both his Church and the FBI.

The book is not well written (see esp. pp. 12-13,19, 227, 275-77).Feminist jargon appears on some pages; in chapter 6, the narrative turns into a first-person account; the introduction appears (p. 227); and we encounter sentences such as "[t]he Catholic seminary trained men to be priests" (p. 30), and "[o]ne of the problems with zeroing in on just one part of a person's life is that the rest gets lost" (p. 227).

To his credit, Rosswurm acknowledges the recent research revealing the presence of several hundred Soviet spies in the United States during the period. So, then, was Hoover right? Were the clerics correct? And what about McCarthy and the Second Red Scare? Was it all just a political trick, or was the country in danger? The author does not answer these questions with any clarity. For example, we are told (p. 176) that Cronin was right about Red spies in America, but the author assures us at the same time that we are not to take Soviet imperialism as seriously as Cronin did. The book might well have been improved by a conclusion.

Thomas C. Reeves
Franksville, WI


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pp. 864-865
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