Catholic Guilt | Media | Chicago Reader

Catholic Guilt 

By Michael Miner

Jonathan Kwitny has asked his publisher to make a few small changes. It's a common request by an author. Man of the Century, Kwitny's new biography of Pope John Paul II, runs some 700 pages, and a few odd mistakes were bound to surface after publication.

Here's one of them. Kwitny originally described Father Andrew Greeley, for all his foibles, as "an otherwise kind and genial priest." Kwitny wants the next printing to read, "who seemed to many people a genial priest." Greeley doesn't seem that way to him anymore, Kwitny told his publisher--"in light of what I now know."

What Kwitny knows is that Greeley reviewed Man of the Century in the Washington Post and trashed it.

"When one finds it inadequate or in error about events and persons one knows," Greeley wrote in his review, "one becomes suspicious of the whole enterprise." He concluded that Man of the Century is a book "rich in anecdotal detail" but whose "frequent inaccuracy and occasional meanness make it untrustworthy. Caveat emptor."

Untrustworthy? The idea infuriated Kwitny, a former investigative reporter for the Wall Street Journal and public television who prides himself on nailing his facts. Not only were some of Greeley's allegations demonstrably untrue, but Greeley concealed his own place in Kwitny's book. In Kwitny's mind, that place should have disqualified Greeley from writing any review at all.

In a long letter Kwitny took the Post's managing editor, Robert Kaiser, behind the scenes. "Many months ago, Andrew Greeley let me know repeatedly by phone and e-mail that he was extremely angry because in my book...I would include two episodes from his past that are rightly embarrassing to him. One...was his naivete in what he had earlier called a 'conspiracy' to 'rig' the papal election in 1978, a scheme that blew up in his face. The other...was his effort to oust Cardinal Cody in Chicago. Greeley did not deny the information I had been given about these events, but he said he found my accounts libelous, although he assured me that he would never file a lawsuit. Greeley had helped me as I started my research in 1993, and became a fairly important figure in my book, referenced on 15 pages. After the election conspiracy and Cody matters came up, however, the friendly tone of our conversations turned around dramatically."

Kwitny went on, "It is not only unethical, but extremely misinformative to your readers, for such an aggrieved subject to be allowed to turn a review of my book into a mere compendium of alleged errors without disclosing his bias or where it comes from."

Greeley's "malicious design," Kwitny wrote, led him to skip over "the main theme and content of my book"--which argues that John Paul II led a nonviolent mass movement in Poland that ultimately won the cold war--and focus on trivial errors. Yet Kwitny told Kaiser that Greeley was wrong even about the errors.

"I begin with what he says about himself, as people would assume he was at least right about that. He says: 'It is not true that I run the National Opinion Research Center nor that I had a staff to research the voting in the 1978 papal conclave,' implying that my book falsely stated these things. On page 7, I wrote, referring to 1978, 'Greeley also helped run the National Opinion Research Center...' (emphasis added)....At no place did I write that Greeley had a staff--although in his book [The Making of the Popes 1978], he did say so."

Much of the thrust and counterthrust between Greeley and Kwitny takes place at this low level of consequence, and Kwitny comes out consistently ahead. Closer to Greeley's heart, if no closer to the book's main theme, is Kwitny's handling of two men the priest knows well. Each shows up briefly in the pages of Man of the Century, but not, as Greeley might say, too briefly to be traduced.

One is James Spain, a diplomat and former CIA employee. Kwitny wrote that in 1963 John XXIII issued the encyclical Pacem in Terris, which "accused both sides in the Cold War of violating human rights" and declared that even communist movements, in the encyclical's words, "contain elements that are positive and deserving of approval." John McCone, President Kennedy's Catholic director of the CIA, reacted by visiting the pope and asking him "to stop being evenhanded." Pope John declined. "On Kennedy's orders, McCone then sent James W. Spain, a CIA undercover agent posing as a scholar, to infiltrate the Vatican.

"Lying about who he was, Spain interviewed many churchmen, according to his report, which was made public in 1978. He reported 'fear that [Pope John] is politically naive.' Among the 'handful of liberal clerics' who supposedly 'unduly influenced' the pope were Father Murray, the American supporter of religious freedom, and Father Robert Tucci, who would later be appointed by Pope John Paul II to run Vatican Radio." According to Kwitny's cursory account, Kennedy read Spain's report and then "called Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston and asked him to assure Pope John of Kennedy's faith in him."

In his review Greeley defended Spain, once a fellow seminarian, as "an honest and honorable man. Only by pulling quotes out of context can Kwitny create the impression that Spain's report was unfavorable to the Pope."

Before writing his rebuttal, Kwitny tracked Spain down in Sri Lanka and interviewed him. He discovered that he'd misread one of his original sources, Spain's own account of his Vatican trip as it appeared in 1984 in the Tablet, a British magazine. McCone hadn't sent Spain to the Vatican. Spain had visited on his own initiative before seeing McCone at a CIA meeting in Frankfurt. There Spain shared his impressions of the Vatican with McCone, who suggested he put them in a memo to the president.

Kwitny has asked his publisher, Henry Holt, to substitute new language that corrects the sequence of events. And as a courtesy, he wants to delete the reference to Spain "lying about who he was." Otherwise he's not budging. He argues that Spain acknowledged being a staff chief in the CIA's Office of National Estimates in 1963 yet identified himself at the Vatican as simply an American Catholic. Moreover, an account of the visit written for the Tablet by Pope John's biographer, Peter Hebblethwaite, had Spain "posing as a visiting scholar." Kwitny told Kaiser, "I leave it to common sense whether this qualifies as 'lying,' or 'undercover' work, which Spain denies."

Moreover, Kwitny insisted that "contrary to Greeley's charge, I did not depict Spain's report as 'unfavorable to the Pope.'" Decide for yourself. To the extent Kwitny's sketchy description of that report is coherent, I think he did. Certainly his source, Hebblethwaite, had put the report in a kinder light. "Intelligence sources tend to report what their paymasters require," Hebblethwaite had written in the Tablet. "James W. Spain departed from this pattern. Refusing to pander to CIA prejudices, he provided the facts that made for understanding. He may have gone to Rome to bury Caesar, but he ended by praising him."

Hebblethwaite's account makes Kennedy's reaction understandable. In Kwitny's book it seems perverse.

Greeley also wrote in his review that contrary to Man of the Century, "Father David Tracy was never tried for heresy." An eminent theologian, Tracy is now a professor at the University of Chicago. While at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., he'd disputed the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae forbidding any form of birth control but the rhythm method. Kwitny wrote that Tracy and Father Charles Curran "were tried as heretics but allowed to keep teaching by the university senate."

Defending his language, Kwitny told Kaiser, "Although the word 'heresy' wasn't used by the university Board of Trustees, the definition on page 507 of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church applies precisely: 'Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same.'"

Informed of Kwitny's arguments, Spain and Tracy each wrote the Post. Spain insisted that the CIA office he was assigned to in 1963 "had nothing to do with the agency's spying activities" and is no longer even attached to the CIA. Tracy asserted, "The question of whether I had a 'heresy trial' is a question of empirical fact not interpretation. That I did not is a matter of public record....Whatever questionable leaps of interpretation Mr. Kwitny may wish to make from a catechism published 25 years after the events of a trial for dissent to papal teaching...that trial was clearly not for heresy."

Tracy dismissed Kwitny's explanation for calling it heresy as "disingenuous." The words "dissent" and "heresy" certainly don't feel interchangeable, though Eugene Kennedy, a writer and former priest, tells me, "At that time, the archbishop of Washington was treating dissent as if it were heresy."

What troubled Greeley was not merely what Kwitny wrote about old friends Tracy and Spain. As he'd feared, Kwitny didn't make him look very good either.

Kwitny begins his book in 1978 in Rome, as the cardinals are choosing a pope. "As he stood in St. Peter's Square that October day, Greeley knew that his plot to fix the papal election (the mere imagining of which was a sign of naivete) had come to naught....The eventual discovery of his 'conspiracy' would embarrass Greeley, an otherwise kind and genial priest. It would also embarrass his unwittingly conscripted hero, Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, who was in line to replace Cody as cardinal/archbishop of Chicago."

Later Kwitny wrote of "damning tapes" that came to light revealing Greeley's wish to replace Cardinal John Cody with Bernardin in time to influence the selection of Paul VI's successor. Greeley suspected Cody of financial misconduct, but "didn't back up his allegations" when a top investigative reporter came to town. Evidence didn't turn up until 1981, three years after Paul VI had died. Federal prosecutors stepped in, Kwitny wrote, while "the Chicago Sun-Times and its rival the Tribune competed in a newspaper war with front-page headlines about Cody, his finances, and the plot to get him." That's when "Greeley admitted, with appropriate embarrassment, that his earlier statements had been 'fantasies.'"

I read this portion of Man of the Century to someone who'd followed the episode closely. He guessed at once who Kwitny's source had been: Eugene Kennedy. Greeley says that as soon as Kwitny began questioning him he knew too. "It's the line Eugene has been handing out ever since the event."

Kwitny's certainly wrong about the newspaper war. Cody was a Sun-Times expose, and the Tribune didn't try to keep up. As for choosing a source, was Kwitny wrong there too? "I owe a large debt to Church scholar and former priest Eugene Kennedy, author of Cardinal Bernardin...for his account of these matters," Kwitny acknowledges in his endnotes. But by various accounts, Kennedy and Greeley despise each other. Greeley plays such a prominent role in Cardinal Bernardin that putting Greeley in his place comes to loom as Kennedy's separate agenda.

Near the end of that book, Kennedy discusses a million-dollar gift Greeley once offered Chicago's Catholic schools. "If the archbishop accepted money that had been earned through novels that had, among other things, savaged his predecessor and attacked him as well, Bernardin would be indirectly approving of them, granting the imprimatur that Greeley wanted for himself. Such a public endorsement would redeem Greeley from the widespread criticisms that he was a purveyor of sado-masochistic themes rigged up in ecclesiastical settings."

Bernardin turned down the money. "Those voices, official and unofficial, that had clamored for some canonical penalty for the priest writer were suddenly stilled," Kennedy wrote. "It was as if Father Greeley's position and his relationship with Bernardin had finally been put into a clear perspective."

Yet Cardinal Bernardin was Kwitny's guide through the thickets of Greeley's "plot."

There was no plot, says Greeley. Man of the Century blames him for embarrassing Bernardin by entangling him in an intrigue that never, in fact, went beyond woolgathering. The "conspiracy," Greeley told me, was his "idle speculation into the tape recorder as I was wandering the streets of Rome thinking about things." And he says those tapes should have stayed private. (A researcher permitted to examine Greeley's papers turned them up.)

"If he says they're fantasies I'll believe they're fantasies," says Kennedy gallantly. "You can quote me on that. If Andrew says those were completely fantastic imaginings I will accept his word on it. What the hell are you going to do? It's not worth it. There's a wonderful phrase the French have, 'Nothing wounds like the truth.'"

Greeley told me he didn't say anything to Kwitny against Kennedy even though he saw Kennedy's hand in Kwitny's questions. "I don't like to play the game that way." Kwitny told me Greeley "responded by bad-mouthing Kennedy and expressing his deep disappointment in me and anger at me at bringing this up--but not denying the facts." Kwitny said he wanted those facts in order to explain in his book why Greeley's influence wasn't greater in Rome. "Both those guys, Kennedy and Greeley, couldn't have been nicer the first year or two. I think Greeley from the beginning was not too keen on Eugene Kennedy. Eugene Kennedy, despite what he said in his book, wouldn't say a bad word about Andrew Greeley."

When the Washington Post, for whom he'd reviewed books many times before, offered Greeley Man of the Century, he persuaded himself he was acknowledging his personal role in the book by carping about the National Opinion Research Center. He signed the Post's standard contract, yet interpreted its instruction "If you have had any contact, friendly or otherwise, with the author of this book...please let Book World know immediately" to mean simply that he should report any attempt to influence the review.

The Post found Kwitny's case against Greeley's review more convincing than Greeley's defense of it. "It was a malicious hit job," Kwitny wrote Robert Kaiser. He wanted it retracted and replaced "with a real review that does justice to my book."

The idea of rereviewing the book struck the Post as absurd, and the letter Kwitny got back from Book World editor Nina King told him so. But she agreed that Greeley had been an "inappropriate assignment," and she offered to publish a retraction and an apology for the paper's negligence. She also told Kwitny that if he would reduce his letter to Kaiser to "manageable length," she'd print it along with a brief response from Greeley and a note of her own "acknowledging our mistake."

Kwitny responded immediately. "The words 'retraction,' 'apologize' and 'negligence' are noble on your part and, in this case, justified," he wrote her. "Thank you for doing the honorable thing."

His shortened letter arrived two days later. "The key words in your most honorable offer remain 'retraction,' 'apologize' and 'negligence,'" Kwitny reminded King. And in a separate note he told Kaiser, "I stress the critical importance of the words 'retraction' and 'apologize.'"

He was dismayed to see what ran. Greeley's response wisely focused on Tracy and Spain. Kwitny "clearly lied about his interview with Spain beyond accuracy, beyond recognition and beyond truth," Greeley maintained. And heresy was a charge that Tracy "flatly denies." King also ran Spain's letter denouncing as "inaccurate and dishonorable" Kwitny's version of their telephone conversation.

Then King said her piece. "I do see a potential conflict of interest in anyone's reviewing a book in which he is mentioned 15 times and with whose author he has quarreled," she wrote. Book World should have found this out, but "we fell down on that part of our job in this case, and I apologize to Jonathan Kwitny and to our readers."

Eugene Kennedy volunteers that the apology "is unparalleled as far as I know. But then, Andrew is without parallel."

Kwitny wrote Kaiser again, thanking him for the apology but letting him know that "I didn't expect the Post to shrug off responsibility for determining where the facts lie, and to leave its readers to view me in a hopeless quarrel with Greeley.... When the Post printed what it did, it had my 4,200-word letter, which acknowledged an error in my book's passage on James Spain: he had interviewed Vatican officials on his own, on his way to meet McCone, rather than at McCone's direction. Was it fair to let me be attacked again and again on the same point without disclosing that I had acknowledged the error, apologized for it to Spain and written my publisher to correct it?

"I was a big fan of your book on the Soviet Union, which was obviously written with the kind of professional care I try to use; would you have wanted such treatment as I got--not just to be equated with someone as factually careless as Greeley, but to have your book reduced to a debate over its trivia rather than over its real content?"

And in this fierce manner authors of books they've dedicated years of their lives to writing defend them from all enemies.

Greeley, if it's any consolation to Kwitny, also emerged dissatisfied. "I am dismayed that you apologize to Kwitny but you did not apologize to either Dr. Spain or Father Tracy," he wrote King. He told me, "Oh, I don't think they'll ask me to review anything again. She never seemed to get the point that Kwitny's book is filled with inaccuracies and some gratuitous falsehoods. But it's her book review."

RIP Jon-Henri Damski

As Jon-Henri Damski lay dying of malignant melanoma in Saint Joseph's, his friends told stories. In one of them the gay columnist was trying to get the city to pass a human rights ordinance. Damski heard Alderman Edward Burke make a speech he considered a homophobic diatribe and buttonholed him afterward. You're a family man, a churchgoing man, said Damski. I know your voting record. I know your history with humanitarian groups. You're better than that. You're capable of doing the right thing. Damski wound up with Burke's vote and with an ordinance. He even made a friend. Burke showed up and spoke at Damski's memorial service a year ago, which shrewdly was held while he was still healthy enough to preside over it.

Damski was honored with a City Council resolution last June. Gwendolyn Brooks and Father Alfred Abramowicz of the southeast side also were honored. "Quite a day," Damski told the mayor. "Priests, poets, and perverts. Me, I'm a poet."

Burke came up to him that day because he considered Damski's soul in some peril. Have you considered converting to Roman Catholicism? Burke wondered. Damski winced. "Alderman Burke," he said. "I'm Roman, not Catholic."

Damski brooded about November. Harold Washington had died in November, and so had Cardinal Bernardin, Kathy Osterman, Al Raby. He ticked off the names. The month was bad news. Sure enough, on November 1 he took his last breath. But it was All Saints' Day, which would have appealed to Damski the Roman. Halloween wouldn't have been bad either. A few days before, Outlines had published his last column. It was about how great sex is.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jonathan Kwitney photo by Deborah Gieringer; Andrew Greeley photo uncredited.

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