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Catholic Guilt

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Dear Reader:

With regard to the Naked Lunch censorship story at the University of Chicago [September 29], it is odd that the Reader's editors are shocked by the fact that pornography was considered a serious matter in Chicago 37 years ago. Now, of course, in our more liberated age, characterized by explosive growth rates in rape, sexually transmitted disease and sexual harassment, we know the wonderful benefits of a society where pornography is commonplace and there are no bluenose limits to sexual expression.

What the story missed, however, and what is the most outrageous aspect of the Chicago Review incident were the university's ugly smears against the Catholic community and Catholic Church. These were embodied in the complaint that the church was critical of the university in those days over the then new Hyde Park urban renewal plan. According to the Reader article, U. of C. chancellor Larry Kimpton explained his discomfort with the Chicago Daily News columnist's expose that the Chicago Review was publishing pornography because it might strengthen the influence of some angry Catholic priests from Back of the Yards who were critical of the urban renewal plan. They opposed the plan, Kimpton maintained, because they feared it would lead to "thousands of displaced blacks streaming into nearby white neighborhoods, especially the largely Catholic Back of the Yards not far from Hyde Park." The porno issue might cause some Catholic aldermen to vote against the university's urban renewal plan, Kimpton explained, and its defeat would be a disaster for the university and Hyde Park.

These charges were totally false, but apparently some lies and bigotry never die. The criticism of the Hyde Park Urban Renewal Plan was coming not from angry priests and Back of the Yards, but from Monsignor John Egan, then and now one of Chicago's most admired and respected leaders in urban affairs, civil rights and interfaith cooperation. Monsignor Egan was head of the archdiocese's Office of Urban Affairs. He testified before City Council about the Hyde Park plan, praising much of it but also criticizing it for providing too little housing for the thousands of low-income families who would be displaced.

Egan's criticism triggered one of the most embarrassing chapters in the history of the university and Hyde Park. Instead of dealing with the substance of Egan's criticism, he and the church were attacked on the grounds that they had no right to speak on the issue and that they were motivated by simple racism, i.e., the desire to keep blacks from moving into white parishes. Apparently, the university did not regard the "whitening" impact of its own plan with the same critical eye.

In time, the urban renewal plan did pass with modifications for some scattered site, low-income housing. As the years have passed, many thoughtful Hyde Parkers have come to realize that Egan was right and that the community is better for the greater inclusiveness he stimulated, but no one that I know of has ever expressed regret for the cowardly, anti-Catholic bigotry that erupted at that time.

This use of anti-Catholicism at the University of Chicago was no fluke, because two years after the urban renewal fight another incident occurred which showed that the tactic was still very much alive. In 1960, under the leadership of Monsignor Egan, the Archdiocese decided to back a group of Woodlawn priests and ministers who had engaged the late Saul Alinsky to help them organize the neighborhood. The result was TWO, the Woodlawn Organization. TWO, under the leadership of Reverend (now Bishop) Arthur Brazier, soon made it clear that it would vigorously oppose the university's plans for Woodlawn, particularly the plan for mass demolition of the housing south of 61st Street in order to create a kind of cordon sanitaire for the university.

The university erupted again in a vicious attack on the Catholic Church, Monsignor Egan and Saul Alinsky. The centerpiece of this attack was a front page article in the Maroon, U. of C.'s college weekly, claiming that the church was supporting a "hate group" in its desperate effort to keep blacks out of white neighborhoods. Coming from an institution which was seeking to effectively wall off the poor minority community to the south, the charge was not only false but patently hypocritical. The editor of the Maroon was none other than Paul Booth, now a liberal icon and one of the leading lights of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Booth has since become a good friend of Monsignor Egan.

The same nonsense was peddled by the Protestant weekly, The Christian Century, and by some Lutheran leaders, even though Protestant ministers were predominant in TWO's leadership. Catholic-Protestant cooperation, pioneered by Egan, was interpreted as a Protestant sellout to sinister Catholic power by these worthies. They have long since fallen silent, but with no sign of reconciliation or admission that they were terribly wrong.

As the years passed and it became clear to the university that TWO and Alinsky were no pushovers, the university's plans for land clearance in Woodlawn were quietly shelved and the foundations for today's more friendly relations with Woodlawn were laid.

I was the director of the Catholic Interracial Council in the 1960s and an eyewitness to many of these events. I was approached personally by a high official of the university who tried to persuade me of Alinsky's evil ways.

I live in Hyde Park-Kenwood and am a great admirer of the University of Chicago. I also believe that the final urban renewal plan of 1958, while not perfect, was on the whole beneficial and responsible for the renaissance of the community today. In the interest of the truth, however, I think it is important to record that the scapegoating and religious bigotry expressed during the urban renewal and TWO conflicts did happen and were not the university's or Hyde Park's finest hours. The lies of those days should be repudiated not repeated.

John A. McDermott

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