e-mail us


A remarkable bishop, a fateful resignation

By James Patrick Shannon
Crossroad, 228 pages, $19.95


Until a generation ago the writing of American Catholic history regularly focused on the lives of bishops. The result was a narrow, top-down perspective. Vatican II changed that focus. The scope is broader now, and bishops occupy a diminished role in the process of weighing the past.

So why this episcopal autobiography? How does it differ from the lives of bishops past? This bishop did a rare deed. He resigned in midcareer on a principle pivotal to the socio-cultural shift launched by Vatican II. Bishop James Shannon resigned over birth control and the political maneuvers of the hierarchy surrounding it.

Shannon decided he could not privately counsel parishioners to follow their consciences and at the same time publicly teach the church’s ban on contraception. The high drama of the birth control debate from 1962 to 1968 forced Shannon into the crucible between the conciliar call to freedom of conscience and the Roman exercise of authority.

When the contradiction between the papal view of contraception and his own episcopal office peaked, Shannon, a man of integrity, honor, deep faith and loyalty to the Catholic church and the pope, decided he could no longer function as a priest and bishop. His resignation linked him to 23,000 other American priests who have made the exodus journey between 1966 and the present. But his journey was unique because of who he was and the office he held.

Let me acknowledge here and now that I am a married priest and a friend of Jim Shannon. My father was a trustee in the parish where Jim was pastor and bishop. My priest-brother had Jim for a high school seminary English teacher. I was one of the 91 priests in the Twin Cities who publicly dissented on Humanae Vitae. The bonds are thick, and my admiration for the man great.

In the beginning of this book, the author weaves a lucid and engaging backdrop to his development. Jim Shannon was the youngest of six children. His father was a cattle trader; and his mother, who as a young widow and the mother of four had been an entrepreneur before her marriage to Jim’s father, was a spirited, resourceful person. Shannon grew up in a warm, loving household and was blessed with many opportunities.

Shannon’s several careers

Shannon had several careers: a high school English teacher, a college history professor with a Yale PhD (one of only a handful of bishops to earn such a bona fide degree), a college president, a columnist in the Catholic and secular press for 35 years, a member and officer of several national boards, a lawyer, a foundation executive, a pilot, a pastor and a bishop. However, what really defined him was his formation as a priest and the “authority of service” that enabled him to lead.

Shannon’s leadership qualities were evident from boyhood. At 35 he became president of the diocesan College of St. Thomas in St. Paul in 1955. There he discovered the larger world, and that world, in turn, discovered him. Though a reluctant fundraiser, his warm, affective personality and his ability to persuade put him in public demand. The college flourished, and his star began to rise.

In 1965 his archbishop, Leo Binz, asked the Vatican to appoint Shannon as his auxiliary. For the next four years, he, along with the rest of Catholic America, experienced the upheavals of Vatican II, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. His major attention was on the Vatican Council.

Shannon twice notes that the three months in 1965 when he was a junior bishop in Rome for the final session of Vatican II were “the most intense and inspiring educational experience of my life.” Writing on this session he focuses on the “dramatic shift in the Catholic teaching on marital morality.” He spells out how an examination of the suggested amendments (most of which were rejected) reveal that the true sense of the overwhelming majority of the 1,700 bishops present was to modify the church’s official teaching on contraception.

Armed with that understanding, he and most of his episcopal colleagues thought that the papal commission on birth control, which was meeting separately between 1964 and 1966, would “follow the liberal trend of the collegial consensus expressed by the council.” The papal commission did just that by a vote of 55-4. Pope Paul VI, however, did not follow that line of thinking. In his encyclical Humanae Vitae of July 25, 1968, the pope reiterated the traditional teaching against artificial contraception.

Shannon, who had been counseling people as if the teaching would be changed, resigned.

But his story is more complicated than that. In his first year as a bishop he was thrust upon a much larger stage when his colleagues asked him to be their press spokesman at sessions of the newly organized National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Unlike many bishops who were “paranoid about the press,” Shannon developed a rapport with the media. He was a skilled writer, a clear thinker, an accomplished speaker. He felt comfortable with public discourse.

His new visibility created problems. On Easter Sunday 1967, Shannon, who had previously supported the Vietnam war, now spoke out against it. In his personal capacity he joined several prominent Catholics in signing an open letter in eight diocesan newspapers “asking all American Catholics to review our country’s role in Vietnam.” As he noted, “The silence of the American bishops on the war was deafening.” The previous year, in his famous U.N. speech, Pope Paul VI had condemned the war.

The most influential American Catholic leaders -- Cardinals Francis Spellman of New York and James McIntyre of Los Angeles -- didn’t want public criticism of the war. McIntyre claimed that Shannon had embarrassed the bishops’ conference and should be silenced. The apostolic delegate, Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, warned Shannon that if he continued to make such public statements, he would injure his career. The implicit norm was: Cardinals, not auxiliary bishops, speak for U.S. Catholics.

In early 1968, NBC invited Shannon to moderate an hourlong documentary exploring the likely impact of Vatican II on the Catholic church. He first suggested that a more senior bishop be asked, but, with the support of some bishops, he reluctantly said yes. After the program, several bishops criticized Shannon’s role in it. McIntyre, then 82, called the show “erroneous, misleading and unauthorized.”

The administrative board of the U.S. bishops’ conference voted 13-7 to censure Shannon. His biggest blow came when both St. Paul bishops, Archbishop Leo Binz and coadjutor Bishop Leo Byrne, absented themselves from the meeting and did not support him as he expected. The deliberate failure of his own bishops to stand by him shattered Shannon. Their weakness “strengthened [his] conviction that promotion or position in the church, purchased at the price they were willing to pay, is worthless.”

Letter of resignation

Nine months later, in his June 25, 1969, letter to Binz resigning as bishop, pastor and priest, he gave as reasons: “I have repeatedly found myself at odds with the timidity, secrecy, studied ambiguity, the curial style and the heavy-handedness of many persons in authority in the church.”

In a 1998 interview, Shannon said Catholic bishops are still struggling to handle communication with the world. “There’s a cult of secrecy,” he said. “Maybe that’s too strong. But they are still struggling to understand collegiality and democracy. There’s still a longing for a monarchy.”

Shannon explains his resignation: “It was a loss of faith in the administrative process of the church and in my ability to deliver in the future the kind of service, obedience and assent expected of me by my superiors.”

However, before he reached this conclusion in 1969, he lived through an experience of tortured conscience surrounding the question of birth control.

On Sept. 23, 1968, a week after his fellow bishops had censured him and two months after Humanae Vitae, Shannon wrote to Pope Paul VI: “I cannot in conscience give internal assent, hence much less external assent, to the papal teaching here in question.”

By the time he received a reply from the pope in February 1969, he had resigned as pastor, had taken a leave of absence, gone to New Mexico to teach at a college and had pondered how he would spend the rest of his life.

The apostolic delegate, reflecting his Roman superiors’ concerns about bella figura (“looking good”), urged Shannon to go for a year to Rome, Switzerland, Jerusalem or anywhere in South America -- with all expenses paid. Shannon saw through this curial facade, said so, and resigned as a priest and a bishop. It was a brutal and lonely experience.

Shannon states unequivocally that it was his future wife, Ruth Wilkinson, (they were married Aug. 2, 1969) who sustained him through the last few months preceding his resignation and the subsequent public fallout. In the rest of his story, Shannon describes his studies and practice of law in New Mexico followed by his return to Minnesota, where he served as director of two foundations.

In an epilogue, he reflects on the need for a collegial style of authority in the church. He speaks with the authority of life experience and service.

The book’s title encapsulates the person. A great respecter of tradition, he nonetheless saw the necessity of changes. Shannon was not a flaming liberal, a reformer; he was a centrist. Vatican II called us to change, and Jim was a leader within the crowd.

He writes clear, expository prose. With an economy of expression, he belabors nothing. He humbly writes of his accomplishments -- some huge -- in a phrase or a sentence. His brief reflections on the liberal arts, the discipline of writing, the essence of management through a collegial process, on being a college professor, death and other topics fit seamlessly into the cloth he’s weaving. They have a purpose; they define Jim Shannon.

Someone else needs to write more of Shannon’s brief but significant tenure as a bishop. Half of this book covers his episcopal years. The time (1965-69) of his episcopacy is so central to the seismic shift occurring in American Catholic society, and he played such a key symbolic and personal role, that further exploration of his years as a bishop is urgently needed. This wonderful book needs to be analyzed and evaluated, and his papers and oral history need to be published before he, now 77, passes from us.

Terry Dosh writes from St. Paul, Minn.

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998