Catholic World News News Feature

The Lesson of the Lost Shepherd November 01, 2003

"There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous men have no need of repentance." Those words of Jesus, complementing the parable of the Good Shepherd, express the most comforting of all Christian doctrines: the belief that even the worst sinners can be forgiven and be received into the Kingdom.

What Jesus does not seem to have addressed, however, was the problem of the Lost Shepherd, a phenomenon which was brought into focus this past August by the death of James Shannon, formerly a bishop of the Catholic Church.

Shannon was a priest of the archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis who enjoyed a brilliant career. After receiving a doctorate in history from Yale University, he became, at age 34, the president of the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul and a leading figure in Catholic higher education. In l965 he was made an auxiliary bishop and in that capacity attended the final sessions of the Second Vatican Council. Considered one of the brightest lights in the hierarchy, he became the American bishops’ official public spokesman after the Council and, despite his youth, one of the best known prelates in the United States. Oddly, despite his reputation for brilliance, in his l998 memoir, Reluctant Dissenter, Shannon showed no real understanding of, or even curiosity about, the fevered events of the later l960s, when he played the almost scripted role of the troubled liberal cleric. He was, apparently, one of that tribe of people for whom “the Sixties” was a high point in the history of civilization, and his view of the Church and of society remained essentially unchanged thereafter. At no time did he ever publicly subject those views to searching examination, even as he rejected Catholic doctrines which had been taught for many centuries. Readers of his memoirs were instructed as to the errors of those doctrines, but the historical environment in which Catholic dissent developed was treated with bland and unreflecting affirmation. Shannon was the kind of Catholic intellectual for whom “thinking” meant turning a critical eye on his Church, not on the larger culture.

Vatican II was for him, as for many people, an exhilarating experience, which seemed to open almost unlimited new horizons for the Church. But neither as a bishop nor as a scholar did he say anything about the Council beyond the standard journalistic clichés. From the conciliar decrees he appropriated the favored liberal term “pilgrim Church” and for some years, even after leaving the priesthood, wrote newspaper articles under that title.

Part of the exhilaration of the immediate post-conciliar period was a new participation by Catholic clergy in politics. Bishop Shannon marched with Martin Luther King in Selma and publicly opposed the Vietnam War. However just those causes may have been, for many clergy at the time such “prophetic” leaps into the political cauldron were either a cause or a result of a deep crisis concerning their own religious vocations—a connection about which Shannon in his memoirs, again, had nothing to say.

Ironically, in the end it was the responsibility that his fellow bishops laid on him— that of serving as a liaison to the media—which began Bishop Shannon’s alienation from the Church.


From one point of view he was the ideal man for the job, because he had considerable rapport with journalists. Unlike many bishops of that era, he understood what was needed to insure favorable publicity: constant signals that the Church was indeed changing, that Catholicism was abandoning the positions which secular opinion deemed unenlightened. The ideas which won Bishop Shannon secular approval were his own sincerely held opinions, but he was also one of the first of what could be called the “media bishops,” who learned the technique of telling the secular world what the secular world wanted to hear, continually emphasizing the distance between themselves and their less “enlightened” colleagues.

There were Catholics who agreed with Shannon. But, perhaps without his fully realizing it, his constituency increasingly lay outside the Church, and the task allotted him by the spirit of the age was to reassure his constituency that, under the leadership of people like himself, the Church was moving in a direction secularists could approve. In his memoirs he had negative things to say about some of his fellow bishops and priests but nothing but praise for secular academics and journalists.

Bishop Shannon’s nemesis was Cardinal J. Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles, who at board meetings of the national bishops’ conference criticized Shannon’s way of dealing with the media. One particular focus of the cardinal's ire was a television documentary that Shannon narrated, which aired the views of dissenting Catholics and recorded a highly irregular liturgy. Here again Shannon showed himself a pioneer of the “new Church.” As many bishops after him would learn to do, he insisted that his participation in the program did not imply his approval of its contents, and argued that the Church should in any case be open to diverse viewpoints. Still Cardinal McIntyre was able to persuade a majority of the bishops’ board to vote a kind of censure of the program, and it was this above all which seems to have severed the young bishop’s psychological bonds to the Church.

In his memoir, Shannon related that he had developed growing doubts about the Catholic teaching on birth control, and by the time Paul VI reaffirmed that teaching, in his l968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Shannon had concluded that the practice of contraception was not immoral and that the Church was in error. No doubt he sincerely believed that. However, he again conformed to a stereotypical scenario of the late l960s: that of the priest who, as he announced his departure from the priesthood, gave as his reason that his conscience would not permit him to accept the teaching on birth control—precisely the Catholic doctrine to which non-Catholics objected most strongly.

Despite being a scholar, Shannon did not even claim that he made a long and careful study of an ancient Catholic doctrine. Already in 1968 there were highly competent theological defenses of Humanae Vitae, but the only theologian Shannon reported consulting was a “conservative” who agreed with him. As did so many people in the fevered atmosphere of the late 1960s, Shannon seems to have rejected Humanae Vitae on an essentially emotional basis, citing conversations with lay people who told him that they found the prohibition on birth control oppressive. In the environment of the time, being a “thinking Catholic” did not mean being a careful student of doctrine. It merely meant expressing doubts, however those doubts may have been arrived at.

Shannon then sent a letter to Pope Paul VI, announcing his dissent and offering to resign his episcopal office. While waiting for an answer he taught at a college in New Mexico, still serving as a bishop. When he applied to have his teaching position regularized, he was instead invited to accept an unspecified ”special mission” on behalf of the Pope. Shannon rejected the offer and continued to live and work in New Mexico: a bishop in an irregular canonical situation. That odd situation became untenable when he was married, in a Protestant ceremony, provoking his excommunication.

After his death, Shannon’s admirers claimed that he was an unfailingly kind man without rancor, devoid of all bitterness. On the whole this may have been true, although his memoirs point to the notable exception of Cardinal McIntyre, who seems to have remained something of obsession with Shannon. (Describing a “folk Mass” he attended, Shannon wrote, “It’s a good thing Cardinal McIntyre wasn’t there. He would have blown a gasket.”) An almost perfect exemplar of the post-conciliar Catholic liberal, Shannon displayed the mentality whereby unlimited sympathy was to be extended to those who transgressed Church teachings, while a “judgmental” spirit was reserved for those deemed too rigidly orthodox.

In effect he claimed that McIntyre, by angry personal attacks that impugned Shannon’s integrity, pushed him beyond the point of endurance. But behind this conflict between the cardinal and the young auxiliary bishop there was still another change occurring, scarcely recognized at the time but destined to have seriously negative affects on the Church over the ensuing decades. The Shannon story illustrates the process by which bishops came to think of themselves as a fraternity who owe primary loyalty to one another.


To understand this it is necessary to recognize that the post-conciliar Church is more clericalist than the Church before Vatican II, despite repeated claims to the contrary. Prior to the Council the Church was clericalist in obvious ways, but part of that clericalism was the fact that priests and bishops were held to higher standards than were lay people. Bishops almost never questioned doctrine or abandoned their callings, and priests who did so became pariahs. But after Vatican II, partly because of the pervasively optimistic spirit of the Council, but especially due to the formation of national episcopal conferences, this abruptly changed. Emphasis on the indelible sacramental character imparted by ordination—a bond primarily between the priest and God—shifted to an emphasis on the community, in which even those who had strayed remained members of the fraternity and were entitled to the support, even the respect, of those who remained at their posts.

One of the ways in which the conflict between McIntyre and Shannon pitted the “old” against the ”new” Church was the mode in which each prelate viewed the dispute itself. From the perspective of Cardinal McIntyre, bishops were to be held to the highest standards and could not lend their authority to anything which might undermine orthodoxy. For Shannon, on the other hand, the quarrel seems to have been intensely personal: a senior member of the fraternity bullying a progressive-minded junior brother.

Shannon seems to have been most deeply wounded by the fact that his two immediate superiors—Archbishop Leo A. Binz and Coadjutor Bishop Leo C. Byrne of St. Paul-Minneapolis—abstained from the vote that censured Shannon‘s television program, abstentions which Shannon regarded as betrayals of friendship and loyalty. Binz and Byrne were, he charged, intimidated by a powerful cardinal. Looking at the issue another way, however, it seems equally possible that Shannon’s superiors may actually have thought that he was wrong, and may have refrained from voting in order to avoid the painful duty of going on record in criticism of him. But it was typical of Shannon’s rapidly evolving mentality that he seems never to have considered that he may have been wrong, or that there were serious issues at stake about which McIntyre, however heavy-handed he may have been, had legitimate concerns. Shannon in effect asked his fellow bishops to endorse the idea that dissenting views could legitimately be disseminated through official ecclesiastical channels, and he seems not to have comprehended why most of them (at that time) did not agree.

Nor did he ever see fit to define precisely his own position toward Catholic doctrine. Ostensibly he was troubled by only one issue: contraception. But his subsequent actions implied a rejection also of the Catholic teachings concerning the sacraments of matrimony and holy orders. Characteristically, he offered no theological justification for leaving the priesthood and marrying. Indeed it appears that for him, as for many priests of his era, there were no theological issues, merely a series of almost programmed steps required by each priest’s personal odyssey.

When Shannon eventually returned to the Twin Cities, he found a spiritual home in a parish (St. Joan of Arc) whose pastor, Father Harvey Egan, was a personal friend. Under Egan’s leadership the parish had become a center of opposition to Church authority; on one occasion a feminist woman was invited to preach a pro-abortion sermon from the pulpit. In his memoirs Shannon said nothing about the way in which liberal Catholicism developed after 1968, giving no indication of how far he followed the trajectory of dissent, which soon went far beyond the issue of contraception.

While in New Mexico, Shannon attended law school and practiced law for a time, then returned to the Twin Cities to serve successively as director of two different philanthropic foundations. In those capacities he became an influential and well-known civic figure, continuing to offer himself as a spiritual leader through his articles in a local newspaper. As happened to many liberal Catholics of that age, his “prophetic” stance toward the Church, if it led to painful conflicts within the institution, also brought with it ample worldly rewards from a secular society which valued liberal Catholics for reasons which those liberals seem rarely to have questioned.


When Shannon died last summer it was announced that several years ago he had been reconciled with the Church, at the request of Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis. The terms of the reconciliation were not made public, but Shannon received a Catholic funeral attended by two bishops and numerous priests.

Such an event could be regarded as a joyful living out of the parable of the Good Shepherd, except for the anomalous fact that Shannon himself had been a shepherd, not one of the sheep. Beyond that, there is no reason to think that he was reconciled to the Church as a penitent. If actions speak louder than words, the spectacle of a Catholic bishop publicly denying the most disputed teaching of his Church, then changing his life in ways the Church considered sinful, taught ordinary Catholics a far more memorable lesson than any number of papal encyclicals. Yet in his memoirs he asserted what his widow confirmed after his death, “He said that not for one minute had he been sorry...” In his memoirs, in what he obviously regarded as a profound act of faith, Shannon affirmed his belief that everything which happened to him in his life was in accordance with divine providence, an assertion which implied that it was God’s will that he abandon his episcopal calling and enter into what the Church considered an invalid marriage.

In a way that he himself might not have fully understood, Shannon’s funeral proclaimed his posthumous triumph over Cardinal McIntyre, embodying precisely the view of the episcopacy as a fraternity which Shannon had espoused following the Vatican Council. Retired Bishop Paul Dudley of Sioux Falls, a native of the Twin Cities archdiocese, seemed to reduce the issue to a question of personal feelings, explaining: “Even though [Shannon] went in a direction we had trouble with, there were never any hard feelings. Despite the pain, he never caused us to disown him, or him to disown us.” Auxiliary Bishop Richard Pates of St. Paul-Minneapolis said, “There was no reason for separation. He was no longer a bishop, but he was in full relationship with the Church. It was his spiritual home.”

The words of his former episcopal colleagues were a double validation of Shannon’s view of the Church. They confirmed his idea of the fraternity of bishops as an unbreakable bond that, like all such fraternities, in practice holds its members to lower standards than those to which it holds the laity. They tacitly assumed that the Church is indeed open to “all points of view,” so that it could remain Shannon’s spiritual home on his own terms.

Episcopal careers like that of James Shannon remain rare. But at his death those in authority seemed to have nothing enlightening to say about a shepherd who abandoned his flock. The bishops who eulogized him could give no guidance to faithful Catholics who might wonder why a bishop was apparently exempt from teachings that lay people are told they should obey. The hierarchy’s inability to deal with the phenomenon seemed to leave open the possibility that Shannon was indeed correct in thinking that it was he who had chosen the higher road.

[AUTHOR ID] James Hitchcock, a regular CWR contributor, is a professor of history at the St. Louis University.