This is a confession, of sorts. Some may think that confession comes easily to Catholics. It is, after all, a sacrament of the Church. But confession does not come easily to me, or I think, to most Catholics. Neither do I think it should. The story that follows is not easy to tell. I am hesitant about discussing my faith. I have given any number of talks about my faith and I am shy every time I do it. And I will be shy the next time.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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I have tried to tell this story straight from my heart. Faith is not monkey business, and I think we are held to a high standard of truth when we discuss it. I would not want to stand before Our Lord on that awesome day and admit that I had written this with my fingers crossed.
I was not born into or raised in a Catholic culture. Though my parents were Catholics (my father only nominally so), the world around me was firmly Protestant, save a handful of dedicated Catholics in my mother’s family. Born in Maryland and raised in the District of Columbia, the year before Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and Ruth hit sixty home runs, I might as well have been in Mississippi as far as customs and religion were concerned.
Catholicism generally was seen as a curiosity and its observances idolatrous. If there was hostility, it was well concealed behind the good manners of my people, an aspect of the Old South that I have always admired. We were just eccentrics in their eyes. I was rather proud to be part of this minority. I sensed a feeling among them that Bowie was a nice child, with a markedly un-Catholic name, who would surely, when he was sensible, come around to the Episcopal Church of his Maryland grandfather.
Though I spent a good deal of time in Episcopal churches and admired their beauty and style, as well as their genteel people, I never came to stay. I was always drawn back to that mysterious place where the red sanctuary light burned next to the tabernacle — and the Irish priests dared to speak about sin.
I was baptized George Bowie Kent Kuhn. While there are no saints of that name, Bowie does happen to be a Scot-Gaelic word meaning “golden haired.” Historically it was made famous by a collateral Maryland relative of mine named Jim Bowie. A frontiersman, he died an American hero at the Alamo, but not before, according to legend, giving a deadly account of himself with the besieging Mexicans. Somewhere in our past we share a common ancestor. Late in my days as commissioner of baseball, a well-intentioned admirer gave me a Bowie knife with the thought that it was time to be less Christian with my enemies and more like my relative.
My mother was a strong Catholic. My loyalty to the Church was her gift. There was strength in that loyalty, which she gave me by example. Long before I had any grasp of Catholic theology or history, I believed that the Church was my team and that I should stick by my team no matter what.
I recall with some embarrassment the bone-headed fierceness of my early faith. Let a friend suggest that there had been immoral popes and I’d be on him like a leopard. Or let it be said that Methodists knew more about the Bible than Catholics, and I would fire back angry assertions about how Catholics had invented the Bible, and, of course, knew more about it than anyone else. There was no bottom to my youthful ignorance.
Neither at my parents’ knees nor in school did I learn much about the Church, except for Sunday school, where I faithfully, but mindlessly, learned the Baltimore Catechism. I never attended a Catholic school. While I was introduced to the sacraments in normal course, I did not learn much about their true meaning or efficacy. At the time of my first communion, I distinctly recall believing that Our Lord was kept somehow inside the altar and that if I could only get the lid off, I’d find him there.
We attended Sunday Mass faithfully, kept the holy days, and abstained from meat on Fridays, even though my father thought abstinence was silly since he liked lobster, oysters and soft-shelled crabs better than most other food. It was all good, solid, surface Catholicism, but not much more. In my father’s case there was not much more, in any event. His Catholicism was simply a label. He ignored the sacraments and rarely attended Mass.
During the ’30s, my father began to drink excessively. The effect on the household was devastating, as anyone who understands alcoholism would know. The situation persisted in varying degrees until a stroke in 1971 gravely incapacitated him. That my mother survived this long period tells a lot about her strength and faith. She prayed continually, full of hope, and never despaired. God only knows how many rosaries she prayed and tears she shed.
After the stroke, he became totally dependent on her. She took him to Mass regularly and led him up to the aisle to communion. At least one priest would not give him communion, so she led him up other aisles to other priests. In the sixty-first year of their marriage, he died at home in her arms.
What was his effect on my faith? Despite his grievous failings, he worked hard, provided adequately for his family, kept a regular schedule, was honest, patriotic, and took pride in family accomplishments. I doubt that he had any negative effect on my faith. I have never held him responsible in any way for my failings. Nobody is given a perfect foundation.
Some Rowdy Days
Though I was proud to be a Catholic, I had as yet no sense of the real joy and profundity of the faith that had come down to me from the apostles. It was perfunctory. I was obedient to my parents and to the Church. I went to confession when prodded by my mother and received the Eucharist. I said my daily prayers without much sense of a conversation with God.
I was really preoccupied with worldly things and worked at them with dizzying intensity. I was on organized football and baseball teams; I got a varsity letter in basketball; I was in the school bank and school plays (even in singing roles); I was a soda jerk and scoreboard boy for the Washington Senators; I chased all the pretty girls who would have me; took up drinking and smoking; and burned all the candles I could find except those in church.
The place I was going in 1944 was the United States Navy. I had been admitted to the Naval V-12 Officers Training Program that spring. Ten days after I graduated from high school I entered the Navy, still only seventeen years old. It was a bigger and more dangerous world than I had bargained for, with more than enough temptations for a nice Catholic boy from Washington. Here began the ten darkest years of my spiritual journey.
During that span, I completed my mercifully brief naval career, got an undergraduate degree from Princeton and a doctor of laws degree from the University of Virginia and went to work for the Willkie Owen law firm on Wall Street.
I pulled steadily away from the Church. I wasn’t even tepid. I gave up the sacraments completely. I indulged in whatever riotous living came my way. I ran wherever the café crowd ran. And all the while my career flourished. I was a naval officer, I had honors from Princeton, had been one of the law review editors at Virginia, and prestigious law firms had bid for my services. What’s worse, I was passing up opportunities for marriage that only a fool would have ignored. Pride was the master of my ship.
Oddly enough, I went to Mass every Sunday, regardless of inconvenience. I was the Pharisee in the temple. I was blessed by having a group of dedicated Catholic friends who worried about me, as well they might. I was given fraternal advice and a copy of Thomas Merton’s best-selling Seven Storey Mountain, which had been published only a few years earlier. I didn’t know it yet, but somewhere in that book I would find my road to Damascus.
I had never read a book of theology or spirituality. I am sure it was one of those little guardian angel miracles that caused me to read Merton, about whom I knew next to nothing. I certainly could not have told you who the Trappists were.
The Merton book is his autobiography and confession, taking him from his childhood to his conversion and his reception into the Trappist Order at the Abbey of the Gethsemane in Kentucky. The definition of rapture is to be carried away by joy; I was enraptured by this book. I identified with Merton’s life in New York, the carefree emptiness of the lifestyle, the concerned friends, the spiritual reading, the tabernacle, Christ hidden there, the backsliding, return to the tabernacle, conversion. It was only twelve years or so earlier. It was both painfully and beautifully real.
Merton first sought his vocation with the Franciscans at their church on 31st Street in Manhattan. I knew the church and began to go there. I felt Merton’s presence there, and more.
It became clear to me that there had to be a real change in my life, doors had to be shut, entanglements ended. Professionally, I continued to work hard and take on new responsibilities. Socially I began to draw more into myself, not as a hermit, but allowing more time with myself alone. It is human to resist being alone. It is also a mistake. I returned to the church on 31st Street. This was the summer of 1955.
In August, I spent a weekend with friends in the small Long Island village of Quogue and attended the Saturday night dance at the Quogue Field Club. As we sat in the bar, drinking Scotch and soda, we were joined by a startlingly attractive, tall brunette who rather reminded me of Rita Hayworth, her hair being cut very much in the style of that beautiful movie actress. Her name was Luisa Degener. While her husband, George, was socializing and dancing, we talked for quite a while. That was easy — she was an engaging lady.
A month later, George was killed in a tragic auto accident in Manhattan. In October of the following year, Luisa and I were married. That was almost forty-one years ago, as I write. It was also four children, eight grandchildren, and quite a number of other things ago, some of which are pertinent to this story.
Luisa was an Episcopalian from birth with a family background that was hostile to Catholicism. She shared a few, but happily not all, of the modernist notions of her church, against which Cardinal Newman had so perceptively written a century earlier — in vain as things were turning out. This did not give us much concern in 1956, but it did later.
Before our marriage, I took a step I had been dreading: I went to confession for the first time in more than ten years. The event is very vivid to me, even forty or so years later. I went to Our Lady of Victory Church in Manhattan’s financial district, near my office. It was one of those blessed churches where the confessional light seemed to burn all the time. There was a lot for me to say and I had prepared carefully and in painful detail. In the confessional, I gave my accounting at length as the priest listened quietly. When I was finished, he commended me for my honesty. Can you imagine? After all those sins, I was commended! I cried as he gave me absolution and cried on as I knelt in the dark church. Victory!
Luisa had a fine three-year-old son named George and was expecting another child by her first husband in April 1956. He arrived on schedule and that was Paul, as sweet a baby as you could imagine.
We were married in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Millerton, New York, at the northernmost reaches of the Archdiocese of New York. Millerton was the home of Mary and George Degener, the parents of Luisa’s late husband. That the Degeners wanted the ceremonies in their town was touching for Luisa and me. Until their deaths twenty-five years later, the Degeners were like second parents to us both. Grandpa Degener became more my father than my own.
Before we were married, we received a course of instruction from a kind monsignor in the town of Amenia, the parish seat. Luisa was agreeable to a Catholic wedding and to the Catholic upbringing of any children we might have, but was not comfortable with joining the Church herself or bringing in her existing children. I did not press her. The Catholic Church had too many “musts” for Luisa, too many places where she might lose her individual freedom. Had I pressed her, they would have joined the Church but it would have been an accommodation, nothing more.
We were blessed with two more beautiful children, Alix, who was born in 1959, and Stephen in 1961. But for several miscarriages, there would have been more. Thus, in a few short years, I had gone from being a meandering bachelor to a family man with four children, a homeowner in Tuxedo Park, New York (of all places), and a partner in my law firm, with responsibilities everywhere I looked. I loved having a wife and home full of little children into which I could pour the good love that had been pent up inside of me. I was a better Catholic, periodically going to confession, mostly avoiding mortal sin, and making an effort to achieve unity with God. I was aware of Christ in the tabernacle and even paid him weekday visits, infrequent as they were.
My law firm represented Major League Baseball. On and off, I worked on baseball matters. In 1967, when the partner in charge became seriously ill, I took over. Two years later, General Spike Eckert was relieved as commissioner of baseball. After a short search, I was named commissioner, a job I was to hold for sixteen years. I wrote a book published in 1987 called Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner. It will tell you more than you want to know about my time in the game.
My baseball career had spiritual consequences — some good, some not so good. The game came out of reverse and flourished in my years. It has not done so well since. There is some portion of the American public that attributes the game’s success in my time to the style of leadership I gave it. I stressed honor, integrity, and keeping commitments. I talked about the moral nature of these concepts and their impact on young people. Because baseball’s impact on the American public was very great in those days, the moral message had an impact. While no one can say how much, I think it was significant.
There was another good consequence. Given baseball’s age, tradition, and folklore, there was no game that the public and media understood so well or felt more competent to micromanage. The result was that as commissioner, I could make few moves without drawing criticism. I can assure you there were days when I didn’t read clippings. Mostly, I was well aware of the criticism, however. I felt it, I was often hurt by it, and my pride was given useful infusions of humility. At the time, I don’t think I understood that these infusions were a benefit, but I did later.
On the negative side, there was never enough criticism or trouble to put more than a dent in my pride. Baseball is a prideful business. Everybody’s got pride. It’s contagious. My faith wasn’t strong enough to immunize me. This was bad news for my spiritual journey and my family. I began to backslide on both counts. When you’re looking for God, you need to keep moving forward, growing. I wasn’t growing. And I was cutting back on my family. I had been a pretty good father, if impatient at times. I became more impatient and irascible. I wasn’t listening, nor was I making myself hospitable to conversations initiated by the children. I was commissioner around the house and in the office. The same was true of my relationship with Luisa. It’s what pride does. You get remote from what counts.
While my pride would yet lead me into more trouble, a series of providential happenings ensued that reshaped my life.
In 1984, my older brother, Lou, died of leukemia. We had not been close until the decade or so before his death. He was not a practicing Catholic and had little or no use for the Church. With his illness, we began spending time together regularly. Whenever possible, I flew to Jacksonville, Florida, where he lived. I prayed for him harder than I had ever prayed for anyone. On one of my visits, as we sat in his living room and he stoically self-administered his prescription drugs, he said, “I’ve gone down the street and rejoined the Church.” His smile was radiant. We went to Mass together and he received Communion. He kept a rosary beside his bed and died with it in his hands. I had prayed for his life. God heard those prayers.
What Darwin Failed to See
By 1985, I had returned to my old law firm as counsel. I was visited one day by a young priest of the Opus Dei Prelature named Father John McCloskey. He invited me to attend a retreat of the Opus Dei in Amenia, New York, the village where Luisa and I had received our marriage instruction. I did indeed attend and came away knowing that my life was slipping out of my hands and into those of infinite love. Thereafter, Father McCloskey agreed to become my spiritual director, and I later became a “cooperator” of Opus Dei. Providence next took me on a pilgrimage to Lourdes with the Knights of Malta. I was not prepared for the sublimity of Lourdes. It was like stepping back into an age of pure faith. One night in a rainstorm I roamed the streets of the town alone, saying my rosary over and over, oblivious to time and storm. I cannot remember leaving any place with such reluctance.
In 1988, John Cardinal O’Connor told me of his visits to the AIDS wards of St. Clare’s Hospital. I was a volunteer there for almost two years before I left New York. The patients there were acute and dying. They couldn’t care less about who I was or ever had been. If I physically touched them, was compassionate and gentle, some would discuss with me their spiritual needs. I helped them, watched them die and understood better where Christ was pointing us in the twenty-fifth Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.
My last providential happening was one I inflicted upon myself through pure, unmitigated pride: I participated in the formation of a new law firm that was foolishly and irrationally conceived; it had no chance of survival. Within two years, the firm was out of business. I bore the humiliation and principal financial burden of its collapse in 1989.
A lady whom I had met as a malade in Lourdes heard the story on the radio. Confined in her small apartment, she was dying from the effects of a severe stroke. She called a mutual friend to offer me her life savings of $1,500.
During my providential times, Luisa and I became grandparents of eight beautiful children — misericordia Dei. I can look into their eyes and see the narrow road that leads to heaven.
As I have said, these events reshaped my life — each in its own way. I have achieved neither humility nor holiness, though I struggle for both. At least I can now look at myself honestly and with genuine hope in God’s divine mercy. I know now there would be no hope for me but for the rich gifts of the Church. I am a slow learner, but I think I have found the road to Damascus.
This article originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of Crisis Magazine.