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True Grit

HIS EMINENCE OF LOS ANGELES: James Francis Cardinal McIntyre By Msgr. Francis J. Weber; St. Francis Historical Society: 728 pp., $35

June 22, 1997|KEVIN STARR | Kevin Starr is the state librarian of California, a distinguished visiting professor of public policy at Pepperdine University and chairman of the California Sesquicentennial Commission. His latest book is "The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s" (Oxford University Press)

Roman Catholics, like me, who believe that Los Angeles is destined to emerge in the 21st century as a world center of Roman Catholic practice, are going to love this magisterial biography, 30 years in the making. At long last, a much vilified Roman Catholic prelate of the 20th century, His Eminence James Francis Cardinal McIntyre (1886-1979), the eighth bishop of Los Angeles, can now have his day in court, thanks to the meticulous research and energetic writing of archdiocesan archivist Msgr. Francis J. Weber.

What? I can hear skeptics say: You don't mean the Cardinal McIntyre, the Erich von Stroheim of the Roman Catholic Church, the Man You Loved to Hate (at least in the secular and liberal Catholic press) throughout the 1960s? This is the cardinal, after all, who allegedly opposed celebrating Mass in English; who allegedly balked at the reforms of the Second Vatican Council; who allegedly pulled the plug on one of the most dynamic sisterhoods in the nation, the Immaculate Heart Sisters, for not wearing habits; and who was asked to resign by one of his own priests, the Rev. William H. DuBay, in a series of fiery press conferences, in 1964.

An even larger audience knows McIntyre as the thinly disguised cardinal-archbishop in John Gregory Dunne's novel "True Confessions," with McIntyre's chancellor and priest-of-all-work, Msgr. Benjamin G. Hawkes, appearing as Msgr. Spellacy (played by Robert De Niro in the 1981 film version of Dunne's novel), whose priestly vocation had long been lost in his rise up the ecclesiastical ladder and in his toadying to the wealthy and the prominent. So complete was the indictment of McIntyre and Hawkes in "True Confessions" that even the novelist Father Andrew Greeley, himself no great fan of the cardinal, denounced the novel as a vulgar obscenity.

Trained by the renowned ecclesiastical historian Msgr. John Tracy Ellis of the Catholic University of America (who was himself ambivalent in his assessment of McIntyre), Weber is much too fine and honest a historian to deny the cardinal's faults. His eminence could rush to judgment, and he liked to run things his own way in the largest archdiocese in the world (resisting, for example, the creation of Priests' Senates that were being established in other dioceses and which he believed were an unnecessary duplication of priest consultors who advised each bishop on the day-to-day management of the diocese). He was also no theologian (the Jesuit John L. McKenzie confessed his relief that McIntyre said little about church doctrine throughout his career). In fact, one might agree with one of his more kindly critics, journalist Robert Blair Kaiser, who said that his eminence was considered "a dinosaur in the middle of the twentieth century."

Yet what Kaiser saw as a dinosaur, I see as an embodiment of the type of priest and bishop who built Roman Catholicism in this nation, brick by brick, throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Social activist Dorothy Day, whom Father McIntyre brought into the Catholic Church, did not see him as a dinosaur, but rather as the epitome of the holy and committed parish priest. The troubled souls whom McIntyre, even as a cardinal, ministered to in the wee hours of the early morning, so that the other priests in the rectory might get a full night's sleep, did not think of him as cold and unfeeling but rather as a skilled confessor and shepherd of souls and a soft touch for a 5-spot or two. Even his worst critics admitted that McIntyre was the model of courtesy and a devout priest whose personal lifestyle, despite his princely rank, remained essentially that of a parish priest's.

Let's go back to the beginning--and the beginning is New York City or, more precisely, the archdiocese of New York. Before and after World War II, the congregation of bishops in Rome sent to California to serve as archbishops of San Francisco and of Los Angeles, respectively, Archbishops John Joseph Mitty and McIntyre, two exemplary products of the archdiocese of New York, considered at the time to be the premier Roman Catholic archdiocese in the nation. When he was appointed Los Angeles' second archbishop in 1948, McIntyre had been the auxiliary archbishop of New York, rising to that rank on account of his extraordinary administrative abilities. Before entering the seminary at 28, McIntyre, a skilled accountant and money manager, had been poised on the brink of a partnership in the Wall Street investment firm of H.L. Horton and Co.

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