Book Review: John Courtney Murray, Time/Life, and the American Proposition: How the CIA’s Doctrinal Warfare Program Changed the Catholic Church

Book Review by Dr. Dianne Kirby, Professor of History at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland: David A.Wemhoff, John Courtney Murray, Time/Life, and the American Proposition: How the CIA’s Doctrinal Warfare Program Changed the Catholic Church, South Bend, Indiana: Fidelity Press, 2015 isbn 978-0-929891-15-6, 990 pages, appendix, biblio, hb. $59.

David A. Wemhoff has devoted 990 pages of meticulous and painstaking research to illustrate his proposition that America sought to recruit the world’s religions as part of a strategy to disseminate American ideology around the world during the Cold War. His focus is on the Roman Catholic Church, which not only had a global presence, but one accessible leader who shared with the United States a mutual antipathy toward Communism and the Soviet Union. Key to this process was the publisher Henry Luce. Wemhoff claims that the Second World War provided the first opportunity for the United States to promote its ideology and points to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘Four Freedoms’ speech and how it was quickly followed by the now famous Luce article in Life magazine proclaiming ‘The American Century.’ But it was the Cold War, with its global battle for ‘hearts and minds’ that provided the real vehicle for spreading American values and ideas. It was a struggle in which the Soviet Union was presented as an implacable, powerful, cunning foe that stood for tyranny and a collective materialism that smothered the individual. Only the United States could stop it. The new war was to be fought with ideas, words, symbols and imagery, the very things in which the media magnate had undoubted expertise. Luce was also convinced of the superiority of the American Way of Life, its capitalist system and the importance of American business. Luce and his magazines worked closely with American intelligence in a variety of ways, including supporting the doctrinal warfare campaign intended to sell America to the world. Wemhoff observes that Cold War rivalry offered the peoples of the world two materialistic societies. The Americans sought to use religion as a means to distinguish their society and system from that of the Soviets and to present it as reflecting and being based upon the same positive values as the world’s major religions. American goodness was pitted against Soviet evil. But the ultimate objective far exceeded simply denouncing the Soviet system and proclaiming the goodness of the American. The concern was not so much to defeat the Soviets - Wemhoff declares the Americans knew they had ‘won’ the Cold War by the mid 1950s - as much as it was to impose the American system of free market enterprise everywhere. However, it was an effort that was presented as a moral and spiritual undertaking based on universal principles claimed to be relevant to all mankind. Endorsement from significant religious bodies was deemed desirable.

The objective of mobilising religion against the Soviets was not new and America’s Cold War endeavours to do so have been addressed by a variety of other scholars. Indeed the religious dimension of the Cold War, from being notably neglected throughout the twentieth century, has become a virtual sub-genre in the field in the last decade. Jonathan Herzog coined the term ‘spiritual-industrial-complex’ to highlight the degree to which America’s major institutions and leaders actively collaborated with church leaders to make religion a key Cold War weapon. However, Wemhoff is less concerned with the process, which he nonetheless assiduously details, than with the impact on the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and even on the Vatican itself. At the heart of the book is the struggle between the modernizing forces within the Church who believed that to remain relevant and survive in a rapidly changing world the Church needed to reform, and those that saw reform as compromising the faith and doctrines on which Roman Catholicism was built. This too was not new, but Wemhoff argues that the manoeuvrings of the United States as it sought to enrol Roman Catholic leaders in the promotion of its own interests was to have profound repercussions on those of the Church.

Wemhoff adopts the position that being an American is to believe in American principles before the teachings of the Church, to accept Enlightenment ideals as superior to the teachings of the Faith. He labels the modernizers within the Church as Americanists. Their opponents are designated the Catholics. Wemhoff details the theological debate between the two sides over the issues of Church-state relations and religious liberty. He examines at lengths the disputes between the ‘Americanists’ John Courtney Murray,SJ and Gustave Weigel, SJ, who ‘were seeking to canonize a political philosophy,’ (p. 23) and the ‘Catholics’ led by Fr. Connell, Msgr. Fenton, Msgr. George Shea. Their dispute was played out in the pages of Catholic journals and the American media. The latter of course, owing to Luce and his business counterparts, supported and hence gave favourable coverage to the Americanists. Wemhoff links the internal Church struggle to the wider objectives of America’s doctrinal warfare campaign, in which the world’s religions were seen as crucial to advancing US goals. This meant infiltrating and influencing their leadership. Wemhoff argues that crucial to this process in respect of Roman Catholicism was the relationship between Henry Luce, his wife Clare Booth Luce, appointed Ambassador to Rome under Eisenhower, and John Courtney Murray, who ended up a Vatican II peritus, a theological expert present to give advice. According to Wemhoff, these three and their allies worked together to promote Americanist views at the Vatican Council, supporting radical change in the Church, ‘which was designed to turn it into a Protestant Church and, hence, colonizers of the world for capitalism.’ (p. 763) Technically, in terms of doctrinal enunciations, above all Dignitatis Humanae, they did not succeed. However, Wemhoff argues that the way in which the American media presented developments suggested far more radical changes than actually took place. Moreover, neither the American bishops nor the Vatican sought to challenge the presentation of Vatican II as a victory for the Americanists. The impression given was that the Church had been brought up to date (aggiornamento) by adopting the values of the dominant culture, that of the United States. Following Murray’s death on 16 August 1967, the Time obituary credited him with incorporating ‘the US secular doctrines of church-state separation and freedom of conscience in to the spiritual tradition of Roman Catholicism.’

Wemhoff points to the curious fact that despite Murray’s undoubted significance there has yet to appear a biography. Wemhoff speculates that there is a reluctance to address a ‘dangerous’ topic that would expose Murray’s connections with American intelligence and his support for the efforts of the American establishment ‘to conquer the Church’. (p 894) Perhaps. But now that Wemhoff has raised so many contentious issues and identified such a wealth of archival sources replete with intriguing correspondence, it seems highly likely that enterprising scholars will pay far more attention to Murray and, indeed, to church-state relations more generally.

Wemhoff openly writes from a conservative perspective that is critical of the changes that have taken place in Roman Catholicism in the course of the last century. Interestingly, however, his criticisms of the United States’ global objectives resonate with those put forward by the Left. At the same time, his research is an important contribution to that of a cohort of scholars addressing the religious component in America’s Cold War, divided by whether it reflected American ambition and interests or American goodness and morality. Wemhoff’s work certainly reinforces the arguments of the former.

Editorial Note: David Wemhoff is an attorney in South Bend, Indiana and currently serves as the Chair of the International Trade and Customs Law Committee for the FBA International Law Section.

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