Among the movers and shakers of American Catholicism, Joseph P. Hurley (1894-1967) surely deserves a high place. As priest, bishop, Vatican envoy and ally of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he was at the center of a number of 20th-century debates involving the church. As influential in his day as his contemporary, Francis Cardinal Spellman, Hurley remains far less known. Fortunately, with the publication of Charles Gallagher’s new work, Vatican Secret Diplomacy, this forgotten prelate finally receives the attention he deserves.
Gallagher, a Jesuit seminarian, is the author of a previous work on the Archdiocese of St. Augustine, Fla., which Hurley led from 1940 to 1967. Granted access to Hurley’s private papers, he has produced a fascinating study.
As Gallagher tells it, Hurley was a classic pre-conciliar Catholic. He believed, as did many U.S. bishops, that a “blessed harmony” existed between the church and the United States, and thought patriotism “should have the strongest place in man’s affections.”
Once ordained, a combative spirit animated him: “Dominating concepts of Catholic militarism, Americanism, patriotism, and athleticism would all be transferred to his religious outlook and his later diplomatic career…. To compromise, dither, walk away from a fight, or ‘not face up to facts’ placed one in the detestable category of ‘the Catholic milksop’.”
Fighting the Good Lord’s fight—as he saw it—was Hurley’s specialty. A man of the world as well as the cloth, his abilities were recognized by his superiors, who assigned him posts in India, Japan and, finally, the Vatican. That Hurley took well to all these positions—despite any formal diplomatic training—speaks to his natural talents.
Gallagher’s book is as much character study as religious biography. Hurley was a man of contradictions. Though outstanding in many respects, he sometimes allowed prejudice to overtake him. While serving in the papal secretariat of state (1934-40), he sympathized with the controversial priest Charles Coughlin. When he finally took a stand against “Charlie,” as he called him, it was only because of Coughlin’s criticism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, not his anti-Semitism. And yet, to Hurley’s credit, after he witnessed what was actually happening to Jews during the 1930s and 40s, he became their champion—delivering scorching sermons against Hitler and his “criminal effort to eradicate the Jews.” He also aligned himself with the White House, becoming “the most outspoken critic of American Catholic noninterventionism and arguably the most ardent Catholic supporter of Roosevelt’s wartime foreign policy.” At a time of rampant isolationism, this was daring.
Even after America’s entry into the war, conflicts continued, especially when the United States and the Holy See differed. Invariably, Hurley took his government’s side, even promoting the State Department’s “Black Propaganda” against the papacy (meant to influence its political stands). Had the Vatican become aware of this, it could have ended Hurley’s ecclesiastical career.
Though positive toward Hurley, Gallagher offers a one-sided view of Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII). Relying upon questionable evidence, Gallagher depicts Pacelli as overly cautious; more fearful of Communism than of Nazism; and not as outspoken as his predecessor, Pius XI. These are familiar but unpersuasive charges, given that Hitler’s most fervent supporters always blamed Pacelli for the anti-Nazi line taken by the Holy See. Gallagher errs when he writes that Cardinal Pacelli’s 1937 warning to the American diplomat Alfred Klieforth was “arguably the only time Pacelli personally expressed his disdain for Hitler.” In fact, as early as 1923, Pacelli, then papal nuncio in Germany, wrote to the Vatican (following Hitler’s failed putsch) and denounced the future dictator by name.
One of Gallagher’s sources against Pius XII is Hurley himself, who revered Pius XI but doubted Pacelli. But the claim that there was a big difference between Pius XI and Pius XII is unconvincing, since Pius XI appointed Cardinal Pacelli his secretary of state and said the cardinal “speaks with my voice.”
Some of Hurley’s criticisms may have been based on simple ignorance. Gallagher cites an entry in one of Hurley’s papers, for example, where Hurley praises Pius XI’s anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge: “Ratti [Pius XI] said it in March 1937, even if Pacelli missed the point later.” Apparently, Hurley was unaware that Pacelli drafted Pius XI’s encyclical. Similarly, Hurley believed Pius XII’s wartime statements were not direct enough; but the Nazis themselves denounced Pius as a “mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals,” and many rescuers have testified that Pius inspired them.
In 1940, Pius XII suddenly appointed Hurley (still stationed in Rome) to be bishop of St. Augustine, a move that had the effect of placing the outspoken prelate in a “backwater” diocese. Gallagher sees this as Pius’s punishment for Hurley’s independent ways. But whatever tensions existed, the pope must have admired the feisty American on some level; for when the war ended, he surprised Hurley by reviving his diplomatic career, appointing him acting chief of the apostolic nunciature in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. There he courageously battled the Communists, even as he met with constant frustration.
Hurley experienced far more success in St. Augustine, to which he returned in 1950, expanding the diocese through savvy real estate deals and religious gusto. If only Hurley’s knack for property development had been matched by a more prophetic imagination. A staunch traditionalist, he opposed the Second Vatican Council and even ridiculed John Courtney Murray, S.J., as a “master of double-talk.”
Last, though an outspoken foe of racism abroad, Hurley was less sensitive to it back home. During 1964, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. transformed St. Augustine into “a major area of civil rights activity and media attention.” Hurley wanted no part of this. Declining to meet with King, he instead sent him an equivocal letter expressing Christian fraternity “among people of different races,” but warning against “any act which might occasion…ill will.” This was six years after the American bishops had issued—on the orders of a dying Pius XII—a pastoral condemning the sins of racial segregation.
One wonders how anyone, observing Hurley’s failure, might have mistaken him for a “Catholic milksop.”