Viewing Rudy's Catholicism through a glass darkly

rudy 01 Newsweek's cover story this week about the roots of Rudy Giuliani's worldview was like a one-sided, incomplete version of 1985's Heaven Help Us. Both depicted Catholic schools in the 1950s and '60s in New York City as authoritarian and rigid. But in contrast to the movie, which pointed out that many priests were holy, compassionate, and down to earth, Newsweek stressed that parochial schools were a breeding ground for autocrats like "America's Mayor":

Corporal punishment was routine at Bishop Loughlin. Adolescent anarchy was a fearful thing; the Brothers beat it out of kids. Some students were afraid. "When you see someone picked up by the shirt and tie and punched in the face, or other teachers throwing chalk across the room -- it was very scary," says Joseph Sicinski, who was Giuliani's classmate.

Anyone who knows about Catholic urban schools in mid-century America would not rule out this scenario. But did Bishop Loughlin teach its students only the importance of authority and order? If true, this is a serious charge against the school. Catholic schools during Giuliani's era still taught the Baltimore Catechism, a manual for young Catholics, and the Catechism taught that one of the two greatest commandments is to love your neighbor as yourself. Were students not taught to help the least among them?

Evan Thomas and Suzanne Smalley's depiction of Giuliani's Catholic background was also seriously incomplete. Like John Judis' profile of Giuliani, it failed to explore why or when the Republican presidential candidate strayed from his faith. Although Newsweek's story does mention that Giuliani pursued a relationship with a woman not his wife in the early 1980s, it neglects to mention that divorce without annulment is a grave sin in Catholicism. Nor does the story mention whether Giuliani attends Mass regularly or considers himself in communion with the Church.

To be sure, Newsweek's story does contain a story of Giuliani forgiving a corrupt cop in the 1970s. But this has a tacked-on feeling about it. Did Giuliani think of it as similar to the sacrament of penance? Perhaps Giuliani did not want to comment on the incident, but surely he has talked about this sacrament elsewhere.

Newsweek's depiction of Catholicism isn't all wrong. But it could have used a comment or two from a Catholic historian or sociologist to give it depth and perspective.

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