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James T. KeaneJanuary 09, 2024
George H. Dunne, S.J. (America Media)

When I was a senior in college at Loyola Marymount University three years ago many moons ago, I was given a curious gift by a Jesuit professor: King’s Pawn, a book by George H. Dunne, S.J. Father Dunne, I was told, was living in the infirmary of the Jesuit residence on campus, nearing the end of a long and eventful life, and King’s Pawn was his autobiography.

I had known my fair share of freewheeling and outspoken Jesuits at that point, but none had prepared me for the blunt and combative personality I encountered in the pages of King’s Pawn (the man himself, whom I met soon after, was rather more gentle in person). Dunne was a man of strong convictions and a fearless intellectual brawler. Those qualities, among others, made him an important figure—if one not often enough recognized—in the civil rights movement, particularly as it related to Catholic culture in the United States.

George Dunne, S.J.: "The thunder gathers on the left while we sing our pious hymns and walk in pleasant processions."

Born in 1905 in St. Louis, Dunne moved with his family to Los Angeles soon after. (Random fact: He was related to the writers John Gregory Dunne and Dominick Dunne.) He attended law school at Loyola College (now Loyola Marymount University). After graduation in 1926, he entered the Jesuits, and in 1932 was sent to China where he worked for four years. The experience would later be reflected in his book Generation of Giants, about the inculturating efforts of early Jesuit missionaries to China like Matteo Ricci.

In 1944, Dunne received his doctorate in international relations and began teaching at St. Louis University. It proved a short and tumultuous tenure. Though the university admitted its first Black students that year, already by 1945 various faculty and staff were attempting to segregate the students. Dunne and another Jesuit, Claude Heithaus S.J., were vocal opponents of segregation and sought to prevent its implementation. After a series of protests and clashes with the school’s president and the provincial of the Jesuit province in the region, Dunne and Heithaus were dismissed from the university and Dunne returned home to Los Angeles, where he taught at Loyola University.

Less than six months later, Dunne penned an essay for Commonweal, “The Sin of Segregation,” an indictment of institutionalized racism in the Catholic Church and society at large. “Racial segregation is certainly a sin against charity and, in the Christian dispensation, is certainly immoral and not to be tolerated,” Dunne wrote. The article proved influential in the coming years, especially at Catholic educational institutions that remained segregated while experiencing huge postwar growth and entering the educational mainstream.

“Trial by Fire,” a play Dunne wrote in 1945 about the bombing of the home of a Black family that had moved into a white-only Los Angeles neighborhood, was performed in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York in 1947 and 1948, and Dunne was sought after as a speaker on segregation and racism. He also worked with striking union workers in the entertainment industry, leading to a confrontation with Ronald Reagan (then president of the Screen Actors Guild) that Dunne claimed resulted in him being reassigned to Phoenix in 1948.

Shortly after, Dunne also served as the Catholic voice in a now-famous public debate with the writer and The Nation editor Paul Blanshard, whose anti-Catholic 1949 book American Freedom and Catholic Power had become a best-seller, in large part by repeating nativist canards about the danger Catholics posed to the United States.

Among Blanshard’s claims was that the Catholic Church was an “undemocratic system of alien control” whose teachings and practices were contrary to the American experiment. He would later argue that the Catholic Church, a “totalitarian octopus,” stood alongside the Soviet Union as a threat to the United States. Blanshard wasn’t speaking alone— fans of his book included Albert Einstein, John Dewey, Henry Sloane Coffin and Bertrand Russell.

Dunne in 1945: "Racial segregation is certainly a sin against charity and, in the Christian dispensation, is certainly immoral and not to be tolerated."

America published Dunne’s eight-part response to Blanshard throughout the summer of 1949 to what he called Blanshard’s “unfortunate contribution to the cause of bigotry.” Later combined and released as a pamphlet, “Religion and American Democracy: a Reply to Paul Blanshard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power,” Dunne’s articles offered a fiery and contentious rebuttal to Blanshard’s claims. Blanshard’s book, Dunne wrote, embraced “the thesis that unity can be achieved only by destroying diversity.”

American society was not in danger from Catholicism, he wrote, but from crusaders like Blanshard who brooked no dissent from the dominant American Protestant culture. “The task of achieving unity without sacrificing diversity is admittedly not easy,” Dunne wrote, “but the only alternative is imposition by political power of a monolithic culture.” Harvard Law School arranged a debate between Blanshard and Dunne in 1950. “I felt waves of hatred coming up at me out of the audience,” Dunne later wrote of the debate. “They came from only part of the audience, a small part, from two or three hundred people who hated me because of what I was—a Catholic and a priest defending the Catholicism they hated. Nothing I could say or do could reach them or touch their hearts or stop those waves of hatred which were tangible, which I could feel and almost taste.”

After the Second Vatican Council, Dunne was appointed by Pope Paul VI as the director of “The Committee on Society, Development and Peace,” known by its acronym “Sodepax.” Based in Geneva and co-sponsored by the World Council of Churches, Sodepax promoted peace and economic investment in the developing world. It was also one of the Catholic Church’s first forays into ecumenical work and dialogue. During his four years at Sodepax, Dunne also continued his advocacy for civil rights, including appearances with Martin Luther King Jr.

Dunne first wrote for America in 1937, and his contributions in the 1960s and 1970s included analyses of everything from the Brazilian economy to United Nations development programs to Irish culture and more. A 1961 essay about a race riot in Alabama provoked some of his strongest words about the church’s complicity in racism and oppression:

No doubt Christianity has become quite complicated. But the essence of the Christian way of life remains as simple as Christ said it was: love of God and love of neighbor, summing up all of the law and all of the prophets. And unless we have this, we do nothing more than tinkle the brass and sound the cymbals. Love is a hard saying and, because in two thousand years we have not learned to practice it, the thunder gathers on the left while we sing our pious hymns and walk in pleasant processions.

He later served at Georgetown University as the president’s assistant for international programs and taught at both Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara. George Dunne died in 1998 at the age of 92. His obituary in The New York Times called him “an impassioned critic of racial segregation and prominent in ecumenical efforts to combat poverty and foster peace.” Paul Locatelli, S.J., then the president of Santa Clara, put it more succinctly: “He was basically a prophetic voice for social justice long before his time.”

“He was basically a prophetic voice for social justice long before his time.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Carol,” by Sally Thomas. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: This fall, we are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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