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Chill that surrounded the Crowleys finally melting in Patty's scrapbook


About six weeks before he died in November 1996, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, called Patty Crowley and asked if he could come over for a visit.

Already under a death sentence from cancer of the pancreas and tormented by a painful stenosis of his spine, the cardinal walked alone the few blocks to Patty's 88th floor apartment in the John Hancock building. Unlike other prelates, Bernardin rarely moved in a posse. He didn't feel that he needed toadies at his side to provide deniability.

"He knocked on the door, came in and sat on one of the couches just like you and [Tim's wife] Jean do when you visit," Patty said. "He stayed for just over an hour, and I can't remember a thing he said.

"We talked about the Birth Control Commission (The Commission for Studies on Problems of Population and Birth Control, initiated by John XXIII and developed by Paul VI) and the encyclical (Humanae Vitae, 1968)," she continued. "I guess I talked most of the time. I just wanted to say that the Birth Control Commission did not promote birth control. It simply said that it was not intrinsically evil."

The cardinal listened. He had written to Patty some months after his arrival in Chicago in 1982. It was his response to her letter in which she traced the hurt she and her late husband, Pat, had suffered after the encyclical appeared.

At that time, Bernardin had written a carefully worded letter, pointing out that he wasn't a bishop during the period in which the commission was meeting. It was more political than pastoral, but Bernardin, in the years that followed, changed.

Patty and Pat Crowley had called upon Chicago's Cardinal Albert Meyer when they were appointed to the commission by Paul VI in 1964. "Go ahead," he said. "But it won't make any difference."

He was right. The majority report of the commission, which called for a re-examination of the teaching on birth control, was never even distributed. Two years after the close of the commission's fourth meeting, the Crowleys were awakened at 2:00 a.m. by a reporter's phone call asking their reaction to Humanae Vitae. The Crowleys never heard from the Vatican again. In that league, even thank-you notes can be suspect.

After the commission finished its work, the Crowleys wrote to Meyer's successor, Cardinal John Patrick Cody. He never responded.

Following Bernardin's death, Patty presented his successor, Cardinal Francis George, with a copy of Robert McClory's 1995 book, Turning Point, that chronicled the commission's work. "I have your book," he told Crowley, "and I don't agree with it."

Then he walked away.

Patty Crowley had run into a wall, one that separated those who used the law as a guide from those whose religion is based on the commandment of love. For the past 30 years, she has listened for even the mildest sound of support from the church she loves. Instead, she has heard only soul-drying silence or bitter criticism.

Bernardin, in Crowley's living room, listened with pastoral ears. "Let's pray for each other," he said. Then he embraced her and walked to the elevator.

Recently, a bishop's diocesan newspaper termed Crowley, who just turned 85, "a very old degenerate" who roamed about "promoting sexual immorality." It echoed the thinking of Fabian Bruskewitz, bishop of Lincoln, Neb., an ecclesiastical Captain Ahab who specializes in harpooning minnows. It was typical of the paranoid style now infecting the church.

Pat and Patty Crowley were the founding couple of the Christian Family Movement, which grew out of a number of Catholic Action groups operating in the mid-1940s. The Crowleys' charismatic leadership so dominated the movement that they became known as "Mr. and Mrs. CFM." In seven years alone (1949-1956), membership increased to 20,000 couples.

According to Jeffrey M. Burns, archivist for the San Francisco archdiocese, the movement enjoyed remarkable success during the 1950s, peaking in 1963. Membership has declined, but it continues to exist, enjoying renewed success among Spanish-speaking groups and acting as a booster shot to other groups such as the Cana Conference and Marriage Encounter.

Patty Crowley gave birth to six children; four survived. The Crowleys had at least a dozen foster children and opened their home to nearly 40 foreign students. They traveled the world, helping to establish the International Christian Family Movement.

Following the release of Humanae Vitae, the clergy closed ranks and stopped speaking about birth control altogether. They also stopped talking to the Crowleys. Even sympathy might be viewed as support, and that could short circuit a career.

Pat Crowley died in 1974. Years later, Patty wrote an article for NCR, presenting her reflections on the experiences with the commission. She received letters from priests warning her that she was going to hell. Although the commission was unanimous in its recommendations to Paul VI, it was the Crowleys who were shunned like E-coli.

In the years since Pat's death, Patty has been involved in many projects. She founded a women's discussion group. With her daughter Patricia, a Benedictine nun, she founded a shelter for homeless and abused women. She is a Communion minister at Northwestern Hospital and a lector in her parish. Now hobbled by two hip replacements, she continues to serve the church with love and compassion, although she feels terribly distanced at times -- perhaps as Bernardin felt toward the end of his life. Living the Beatitudes can run counter to church politics.

Patty Crowley worships at Holy Name Cathedral, where she met Pat in 1934 and where they were married in 1937. But the parish priests and the half dozen or so in residence have never said a word to her about the birth control prohibition or Bruskewitz's lunatic insult.

Following the appearance of the Lincoln gibe, she received innumerable letters of support from across the country and overseas. When the number began to grow, she placed them in a scrapbook that Jean and I reviewed during a joyful evening with her.

With characteristic humor, she had copied the definition of "degenerate" from a dictionary and pasted it on the opening page of her scrapbook. The book will eventually go to the archives at the University of Notre Dame, where it will bear witness to a woman's greatness and a bishop's pettiness.

Three of the letters were from bishops, two of them retired and one an auxiliary. One episcopal letter was actually a copy of a letter written to Bruskewitz, chiding him for his insensitivity. (Allegedly, the retired auxiliary received a bitter reply.) The active auxiliary seemed embarrassed by the Lincoln don's brutishness. He apologized for the hurt Fabian Bruskewitz had caused.

The third letter came from a retired archbishop. One could almost hear it weeping.

There were letters from priests, mostly those who had known Patty from her CFM days. (The Christian Family Movement had a profound influence on its priests. Of the nine priests who served as area chaplains, eight have resigned from active ministry and are married.)

Included in the scrapbook were copies of letters written to Bruskewitz. He had one of his subordinates respond with undisguised sarcasm. "Your letter will get all the attention it deserves," the response said. And then the subordinate promised prayers. It was enough to physic a goat.

One priest challenged the bishop to admit that he had written the response himself. Could be. The word linkages in the question and answer column sound like him.

The letters from lay people were from a mix of close friends and total strangers. Some were addressed directly to Bruskewitz and were biting and furious. The bishops and clergy who, by their silence, supported Bishop Bruskewitz should read the letters. It could be a lesson to them on how much genuine anger is out there. It illustrates perfectly the widening gap between the teaching church and the believing church.

Other letters were wonderfully humorous, reminders that the only authority the church has is the authority we give it. They acted as a booster shot to Patty's weary soul, a remembrance of things past.

Perhaps the thin response from priests could be explained by the fact that those of the Crowleys' generation are now in their graves or are waiting for God. Perhaps, like Patty, they are simply weary. Their plows have been dulled by the same rocks placed in their paths.

There were calls. One group suggested that Patty join them in picketing an episcopal ordination ceremony for a new Chicago auxiliary. Bruskewitz was scheduled to attend, and they wanted to dent his hide. Patty demurred. Not her style.

She continues to receive letters, one or two each day. Like the thousands of letters Bernardin received during his final illness, they spelled the significant difference between the pastoral and the political.

I have this fantasy: It's about the distant future and a priest named Mary, a bishop's daughter, who has just been named pastor of the Catholic community of Ss. Patrick and Patricia Crowley in the Chicago archdiocese. She is reviewing a history of the Catholic church in America when she discovers the now-titular diocese of Lincoln, Neb., which folded when everyone was excommunicated for one infraction or another, mostly for practicing birth control, a heinous practice they had been engaging in for decades. The diocese appears only as a footnote. The long dead bishop's name is misspelled.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he awaits ecclesiastical censure for his failure to give "firm and definitive assent" to most everything. To insult him, contact unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998