Joe McCarthy’s Controversial Catholic Faith
History is dead-on in its verdict that Senator Joe McCarthy’s Catholic faith played a defining role in his life and his crusade against Communism. But it did not happen quite the way historians have told us. For the real story, we need to go back to the senator’s beginnings. His personal and professional papers were made available exclusively to me and I have used them in my new book, Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.
McCarthy’s grandfather, Stephen Patrick McCarthy, established the family’s foothold in the United States in the mid-1800s. A native of Ireland, Stephen made his way to Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley, where farmland was so cheap he could buy 160 acres for $600. The pioneer in him would have found this untamed hinterland of waterfowl and white bass more appealing than his first and more subdued landing spot in rural New York State. Irish Catholics were welcome enough in the Appleton area that they had already carved out a colony amid settlements of transplanted Germans, Dutch, Scots and New Englanders.
History is dead-on in its verdict that Senator Joe McCarthy’s Catholic faith played a defining role in his life and his crusade against Communism. But it did not happen quite the way historians have told us.
The timing of Stephen’s journey to the United States, like that of so many migrants, was determined by calamitous circumstances in his homeland. Staying in County Tipperary during the Irish potato famine might have meant joining the million of his countrymen who starved to death; instead, he joined another million in exile. Even though the Wisconsin acreage he had bought sight unseen included a large swath of swampland, the hard-working farmer coaxed enough from the pinkish loam to be able to bring his mother over from Ireland and to marry Margaret Stoffel, a Bavarian immigrant whose parents farmed the land across the road. Together, they would raise six boys and four girls, never guessing that one of the clan would write their surname into infamy.
Timothy, the third of Margaret and Stephen’s brood, spoke with his father’s Irish brogue and stayed on his parents’ farm, inheriting 143 acres in the rustic township of Grand Chute. In 1901, he followed his father’s example by marrying a neighbor, Bridget Tierney. Her father and mother both were Irish immigrants, although her family was a bit more prosperous than the McCarthys. “Bid” was four years younger than Tim, and, as all who met the pair noticed, she was taller, chunkier and less handsome than her husband, who stood just 5 feet 8 inches and was a wiry 150 pounds.
The couple would share child-rearing duties, which was almost as unusual for Irish-Americans then as Tim’s teetotaling. The “old man,” as the kids called him, carved out farm operations as his domain, and he got his children to do his bidding by persuasion, never by spanking. Bid was the family balance-wheel, dispensing practical advice about baking and homemaking as well as homespun philosophy. “Dog bite Indian once, dog’s fault,” she would counsel. “Dog bite Indian twice, Indian’s fault.” Tim’s advice was more barefaced: “Don’t forget to say your prayers.”
If some dismissed Joe and the rest of the McCarthys as “shanty Irish,” so be it. It was one more chip on his shoulder he would carry proudly all his life.
Irish Catholic to the Core
The latter admonition reflected a devotion to their Roman Catholic heritage that Tim and Bid would pass on to their children. Every Sunday, they rode their buckboard—and later their Dodge—seven miles to St. Mary’s Church in Appleton, just as their parents and other Irish neighbors did. Fellow worshipers called it “lovey-dovey” the way Bid and Tim held hands as they headed to their pew. They did the same thing later on the Lord’s Day when they walked the farm, surveying their oats, barley and dairy cows.
Wisconsin farm families ran big, and the McCarthys already had four at home by the fall of 1908. On Nov. 14, with help from a midwife, Bid delivered the largest of her babies, Joseph Raymond. He came at an opportune moment, soon after the family had moved from a cramped log cabin to their white clapboard house with eight rooms and two porches. Electricity and indoor plumbing would come later. So would privacy; for most of his youth, Joe shared a bedroom with Howard, the brother he stayed closest to and later named as his beneficiary.
There was no confusing the McCarthys of Grand Chute with the likes of the lace-curtain Kennedys of Hyannisport and Palm Beach, but if some dismissed Joe and the rest of the McCarthys as “shanty Irish,” so be it. It was one more chip on his shoulder he would carry proudly all his life.
If his earliest years planted the seeds of his religious identity, Joe’s years at Marquette University also left a mark.
If his earliest years planted the seeds of his religious identity, Joe’s years at Marquette University also left a mark. Bid and Tim had impressed upon their children the importance of their Catholic faith, and the Milwaukee Jesuits reinforced that message. Joe took four semesters of theology courses, as required for Catholic engineering students. He earned As in the first two, on “Natural Religion,” which focused more on philosophy than on doctrine and explored how God shows himself through reason along with revelation. He did less well in “Social Justice–Sacraments,” getting a B the first semester and a C the second.
What stuck with McCarthy, however, was his church’s opposition to Communism and its Index of Forbidden Texts. Books were banned if they contained material deemed to be heretical, salacious or just not edifying for Catholics to read, and a list of Marquette students who did read them for a class was forwarded to the archbishop every semester. Such tabulations, which had been around since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, were discontinued by Pope Paul VI in 1966.
Still, we should not attribute too much of who Joe became to his instruction on the Jesuit campus, wrote Donald F. Crosby, S.J., a Jesuit historian who devoted an entire book to McCarthy’s relationship with the church. “His Marquette experience,” said Father Crosby, “seems less an exercise in formation at the hands of the Jesuits than simply a stop on the way up the ladder to political success.”
Another stop on McCarthy’s political and spiritual ladders came when, as the junior senator from Wisconsin, he fell in love with his aide Jean Kerr. Religion kept the pair apart early on. Jean was raised Presbyterian, but the more Sundays she spent with Joe, the more she embraced his Catholicism, until finally she became Catholic herself.
“His Marquette experience,” said Donald F. Crosby, S.J., “seems less an exercise in formation at the hands of the Jesuits than simply a stop on the way up the ladder to political success.”
“Gradually, as I came to understand the Catholic faith and began to see how much his faith meant to him, in a quiet, basic way—like breathing or eating—I saw a new side to Joe,” Jean explained in The Joe McCarthy I Knew, her unpublished memoir that was part of the aforementioned stash of records kept under lock and key for 60 years. “Behind the warm, happy, bubbling personality, behind the kidding and the humor was a serious man, a purposeful man whom God had endowed with an extremely keen, absorbent and discriminating mind and the drive to make right what was wrong.”
Jean had it right about Joe’s faith. It was heartfelt, but he set the terms, not the church. For years, he quietly mailed $50 a month to Catholic missionaries he had met in the South Pacific during his service in World War II. He seldom missed a Sunday service or a chance to confess, but he would not be caught dead lighting candles or attending a Holy Name Society breakfast. Friends describe tripping over him in the dark as he knelt to pray; others recall taking him from Sunday Mass to a craps game at Milwaukee’s Hotel Schroeder that lasted until Monday afternoon; and he refused to travel—even in an elevator—without his money clip bearing the image of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the patron of missions.
Father Crosby concluded that “few Catholic politicians ever made less public display of their religion than did Joe McCarthy.” And while Father Crosby worried that “McCarthy thought that going to Sunday Mass (as well as getting baptized, married and buried in the church) was all that Catholicism stood for,” he conceded that Joe “observed these functions with a fidelity that would have brought joy to the heart of many a Catholic pastor.”
Pinning down Catholicism’s role in the launch of the senator’s crusade against Communism is trickier. Jack Anderson, sidekick to the influential syndicated columnist Drew Pearson and a onetime friend of McCarthy who penned a critical early biography, knew that Joe had a history of Red-baiting, but he wove a more romantic foundation myth about the senator’s anti-Communism.
Joe McCarthy seldom missed a Sunday service or a chance to confess, but he would not be caught dead lighting candles or attending a Holy Name Society breakfast.
A Communist Behind Every Door
Building on a specific newspaper column by Pearson, Anderson sought to reconstruct a dinner Joe had in early 1950 at Washington’s swank Colony Restaurant with Edmund Walsh, S.J., the dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and two other prominent Catholics. Joe desperately needed an issue to raise his political profile. What about rallying support for the St. Lawrence Seaway? Joe: “That hasn’t enough sex.” How about a pension plan that covers all aging Americans? Joe asked. Too expensive, his friends advised. Finally, Father Walsh offered, “How about Communism?” Joe loved it: “The government is full of Communists. The thing to do is hammer at them.”
As Anderson wrote, “His three fellow Catholics went away with the feeling that the sincere McCarthy would do his country a service by speaking out against the Communist fifth column.” The author then imagined what might have been had Father Walsh and the others jumped at Joe’s idea about a universal dole for old folks: “Joe McCarthy might well have gone forth, in all his aggressiveness, to win for himself a pedestal in the pantheon of fighting liberals.”
The dinner happened a month before Joe’s widely covered speech to a women’s Republican club in Wheeling, W.Va. The avidly anti-Communist Father Walsh probably did urge Joe to play a more active role on the issue, whether or not he used the words attributed to him. And shortly after the dinner, Joe did ask one of his speechwriters for a talk on subversion in government. But compelling as the dinner conversation might have been, it was not the born-again moment suggested by Anderson and all those who have repeated it. Joe did not need Father Walsh to point him to an issue he had already been talking about for three years.
The Catholic Church in the early 1950s was ardently anti-Communist and explicitly pro-Joe McCarthy.
It was the wild reaction he would generate in his breakout anti-Red tirade in Wheeling—not the words of an aging Jesuit—that convinced him of the political hay he could make from it. But the Colony Restaurant story was embraced with special zeal by those who wanted to link McCarthy’s campaign to the conservative Catholic Church, just as it was roundly rejected by Catholics eager to be free of that taint.
Whatever launched it, Joe’s home-front holy war against the Soviets and subversives got a huge lift from his coreligionists. The Catholic Church in the early 1950s was ardently anti-Communist and explicitly pro-Joe McCarthy. That ardor sprang not just from a right-of-center ideology but from an eagerness to overcome anti-Catholic bias by showing that rather than harboring fealty to Rome and the papacy, American Catholics were true-blue patriots. An imposing 58 percent of them also were favorably inclined toward the senator, a January 1954 Gallup poll found, compared with 23 percent unfavorable and 19 percent who had no opinion.
Leila Mae Edwards, the wife of the Chicago Tribune journalist Willard Edwards, found the same thing when she volunteered at the McCarthy office, watching as Mass cards, rosaries and crucifixes fell out of the mail. The fact that Joe was devoted to his faith made it easy to equate Catholicism with patriotism with anti-Communism with pro-McCarthyism.
A closer look at the Gallup poll and other surveys, however, reveals that the line was not quite that straight. While most Catholics were McCarthy boosters, so were most Americans; Catholics were just 8 to 10 percentage points more supportive than the rest of the population. In his 1952 re-election campaign, Joe got only marginally more backing from Wisconsin Catholics than did the rest of the slate of Republicans. Nationally, his Catholic support was strongest among the working class, the upper crust, Republicans, Bostonians and Irish Catholics.
While the most commanding Catholic voice at the time was the pro-McCarthy Cardinal Francis Joseph Spellman of New York, known as “the American pope,” liberal Catholics produced offsetting roars from the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, the journal Commonweal and, most convincing, Bishop Bernard Sheil of Chicago. Condemning anti-Communism, Bishop Sheil wrote, “feeds on the meat of suspicion and grows great on the dissension among Americans which it cynically creates and keeps alive by a mad pursuit of headlines.” Bishop Sheil also lashed out at the “city slicker from Appleton” who is taking people in “like country rubes.”
Nationally, McCarthy's Catholic support was strongest among the working class, the upper crust, Republicans, Bostonians and Irish Catholics.
Old Joe Kennedy, the patriarch of what would become America’s first family, was outraged when fellow Catholics criticized McCarthy, even indirectly—which is what Msgr. John A. O’Brien of the University of Notre Dame did alongside two other leaders of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Kennedy complained to his friend John Cavanaugh, C.S.C., the former president of the university:
I don’t think it does Notre Dame any good to have Father O’Brien signing petitions for the Christians and Jews with Notre Dame behind his name…. I always thought that organization was completely dominated by the Jews and they just use Catholic names for the impression it makes throughout the country.
Robert F. Kennedy likely disagreed with his father on that anti-Jewish swipe, but he did embrace the political philosopher Peter Viereck’s observation that “anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals,” and he joked that the ideal headline in the Jewish-led New York Times would be “More Nuns Leave Church.”
If the Kennedys saw a conspiracy among critics of the church, an F.B.I. source reported a plot in which:
[A] group of Catholics in the United States led by Cardinal Spellman is at odds with the Vatican regarding various foreign issues. [The source] referred to the Cardinal’s followers as a “conspiracy” working to undermine the Eisenhower administration and to eventually bring about the election of Senator Joseph McCarthy as President. [He] claimed that McCarthy is receiving the support of many wealthy Catholics, including prominent individuals such as ex-Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy.... [He] stated that he was not anti-Catholic and he claimed that he has many friends who are ardent members of that church.
No surprise, perhaps, that a master of conspiracy like Joe McCarthy spawned so many conspiratorial rumbles.
The View From America
That push-pull within the church was mirrored in these pages. The editors of America started out skeptical of the senator but open-minded. But as McCarthy ratcheted up his attacks, America amped up its criticism to the point where the senator branded its coverage “completely and viciously false.” Over time and at the prompting of its Jesuit overseers, the magazine pulled back its criticism.
The senator’s demagoguery also deepened fault lines between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants presumed that Catholics supported the senator merely because he was Catholic; Catholics proposed an equally simplistic take on his Protestant detractors. The truth is that at his peak, McCarthy had the support of an impressive 49 percent of Protestants, which was just one point below his national rating. Jewish Americans were the one religious group who consistently and overwhelmingly rejected him, with 15 percent viewing him favorably and 71 percent unfavorably. To his credit, McCarthy himself never actively played up his Catholicism for political gain.
The seeds of McCarthy’s reckoning were planted in the fall of 1953, when he put the U.S. Army in his crosshairs. He had picked the most stouthearted and sacrosanct institution in the United States to make his closing case that the government was infested with nests of Communist moles. For good measure, he was poking the war-hero president Dwight Eisenhower in the eye—calling him a Johnny-come-lately to the home-front Cold War, then slandering his faction of moderate Republicans as the party of “appeasement, retreat, and surrender.” This scrappiest of lawmakers was going eyeball to eyeball with the nation’s mighty fighting machine and gambling that the other side would blink first.
As McCarthy ratcheted up his attacks, America amped up its criticism to the point where the senator branded its coverage “completely and viciously false.”
At the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, which explored the senator’s accusations and the military’s counter-charges, Joe watched in horror as his support nosedived—from a full half of Americans before the proceedings commenced to merely a third as they were wrapping up in June. Approval also plummeted among Catholics, his base of support. Anti-Communist backers remained steadfast, but those from the political mainstream wavered. The public verdict on the senator’s performance and the Army’s was “a plague on both your houses,” pronounced John Fenton, an editor at Gallup.
That December, by a margin of 67 to 22, his Senate colleagues denounced the Wisconsin rabble-rouser for having treated fellow members with contempt. All 44 Democrats present voted against McCarthy. So did 22 of 44 Republicans and the Senate’s sole independent. Only two of the eight Catholic senators sided with their co-religionist, who himself cast a neutral ballot as “present.”
The only lawmakers not to vote or to cancel their votes by pairing them with opposing senators who also were absent were the Republican Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin and the Democrat John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Wiley was afraid of alienating McCarthy’s home-state fans or angering his foes. Kennedy blamed his recent back surgery; in truth, he made no effort to pair his vote or clarify his stand for fear of alienating Bay State Catholics who backed McCarthy.
In December 1954, by a margin of 67 to 22, his Senate colleagues denounced the Wisconsin rabble-rouser for having treated fellow members with contempt.
Buried (in State)
Both the church and the Senate put aside any grievances two and a half years later in 1957, when McCarthy died of hepatitis at the too-young age of 48. Four days after his passing, a pontifical high requiem Mass was held at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., where Jean and Joe had been wed four years earlier. As 2,000 mourners listened, Msgr. John J. Cartwright said McCarthy’s role in raising an alarm about Communism “will be more and more honored as history unfolds its record.” Later that day, Joe was memorialized in the chamber of the Senate that he had joined at the young age of 38 and where, seven years later, his colleagues voted overwhelmingly to condemn him. The last senator given a Senate funeral had been William Borah back in 1940, although Senate leaders were quick to point out they would do it for any senator whose family asked, as Jean had.
“This fallen warrior through death speaketh,” said Chaplain Frederick Brown Harris on the floor of the Senate, “calling a nation of free men to be delivered from the complacency of a false security and from regarding those who loudly sound the trumpets of vigilance and alarm as mere disturbers of the peace.” Seventy senators were on hand, along with Jean Kerr McCarthy, three of Joe’s six siblings, Vice President Richard Nixon and F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover.
As 2,000 mourners listened, Msgr. John J. Cartwright said McCarthy’s role in raising an alarm about Communism “will be more and more honored as history unfolds its record.”
McCarthy’s body was flown by military plane from Washington to Green Bay, with three of his closest Senate colleagues accompanying him; then it was driven to Appleton. Disciples came in flocks that sun-baked Tuesday, packing the pews at St. Mary’s Church and spilling onto the streets outside the Irish parish where Joseph Raymond McCarthy had been baptized and, six months shy of turning 49, was being eulogized.
“Senator McCarthy was a dedicated man, not a fanatic,” the Rev. Adam Grill intoned. “The guidance of our beloved land is under the guidance of human beings, and as human being[s] we are all fallible.” Flags across the city were flown at half-staff, the way they had been at the White House and other public buildings in Washington, and Appleton schools and shops were shuttered at midday. This was the last of three memorials to the senator and the first in the state that had easily and repeatedly elected him. Twenty-five thousand friends and fans from Green Bay, Neenah and his native Grand Chute paid their respects at his open casket. Others kept vigil outside the church alongside honor guards of military police, Boy Scouts and members of the Knights of Columbus. Flying in to join them were 19 senators, seven congressmen and a handful of other luminaries, most of whom had supported Joe in his relentless assault on Communism.
Joe was buried in nearby St. Mary’s Cemetery, at his favorite spot on a tree-lined bluff overlooking the Fox River. As triple volleys were fired by a rifle squad from the Marine Corps and Catholic War Veterans, Jean stood at attention. The casket was slowly lowered into the ground between the graves of his parents, Timothy and Bridget, where a simple stone would read:
Joseph R. McCarthy
United States Senator
Nov. 14, 1908 May 2, 1957