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American Jewish History 88.3 (2000) 361-376



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Clare Boothe Luce and the Jews: A Chapter from the Catholic-Jewish Disputation of Postwar America

Andrew R. Heinze

"He Who brought you into the vineyard has not stopped leading you," Monsignor Fulton Sheen wrote to Clare Boothe Luce in the winter of 1946-1947, a year after her celebrated conversion to Catholicism. "Out of all America, out of the world," Sheen continued, "He chose the darling of the worldlings to prove the power of His Grace." Sheen's choice of the word "worldling" coincided nicely with Brooks Atkinson's review of Luce's 1936 Broadway hit The Women. Atkinson liked the play's toothy portrayal of 'unregenerate wordlings.' Among Fulton Sheen's famous converts, Clare Luce was a star. Once an editor of Vanity Fair, she had gone on to become a well-known playwright and essayist as well as a member of the United States Congress (1943-1947). In the 1950s she served as U.S. Ambassador to Italy, and she was mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for the vice-presidency in 1956. Full of restless creative energy, gifted with words, bright and sharp-witted, Luce brought to American Catholicism an eloquence that exceeded what she had given Broadway. As she was preparing a massive religious confessional that would span three issues of McCall's in the spring of 1947, Sheen reminded her that her account would be "the greatest personal narrative of conversion ever done in this country." God, he said, "gave you everything . . . a brilliant intellect, an unusual charm and expansive personality . . . prestige and materialities . . . but He kept back one thing-His peace." 1

Sheen, the charismatic radio and television priest, and Luce, the strikingly beautiful writer, politician and celebrity, were Catholicism's most vigorous, popular and effective preachers in the 1940s and 1950s. [End Page 361] Alongside Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain (1948) the priest and the laywoman heralded the passage of Catholics into mainstream American discourse. This passage engaged American Jews, through an unanticipated intellectual dispute that we might call a modern disputation. Nothing like the strange, dangerous theological disputations of medieval Europe, this American debate pitted two emergent religious groups against each other in a fair contest for public attention and respect. A focal point of the Catholic-Jewish disputation was psychoanalysis--the Freudian impact on American culture-while more general ethnic and religious differences between Catholics and Jews lay in the background. Because of her visibility Clare Luce played an important part in this intellectual drama, and her assertiveness elicited a public accusation of antisemitism. This essay will explore the background of that charge and Clare Luce's complicated and extensive relationships with Jews. It aims to shed light on a significant but largely unknown episode of postwar religious history. 2

In a 1948 article for The American Scholar, "Monsignor Sheen and Mrs. Luce," writer Fanny Sedgwick Colby expressed her concerns that Catholics were being hurt by Fulton Sheen's and Clare Luce's recent [End Page 362] condemnations of psychoanalysis. Sheen spoke out at St. Patrick's Cathedral in a sermon called "Psychoanalysis and Confession." Luce's views appeared in a three-part series she had written for McCall's magazine in 1947, describing her journey from hedonism to piety. Beyond objecting to what she considered the anti-intellectualism and inaccuracy of Sheen's and Luce's statements on modern psychology, Colby perceived antisemitism in Luce's new cosmology. "By a repetitive, even if inadvertent, pattern of racial spotlighting," Colby observed, the McCall's articles, "leave with the careful reader an impression that responsibility for our present spiritual inadequacy rests not only on Freud, but as well on other outstanding thinkers of Jewish origin." "Indeed," she continued, "it would be possible for a careful reader to come to the reluctant conclusion that Mrs. Luce's thesis is this: We Christian innocents have been duped into our present godless condition by the unholy triumvirate of Communism, Psychoanalysis and Relativity. These three, symbolized by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3141
Print ISSN
0164-0178
Pages
pp. 261-376
Launched on MUSE
2000-09-01
Open Access
No
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