Observations: A Mass of Contradictions

Saturday, May 9 was extraordinarily bright and sunny in New York. There was more activity than usual near LaGuardia Airport, as large black limousines buzzed in and around the side roads and heavy traffic clogged the Grand Central Parkway. It was so congested that there was the danger that guests at the very small and very private funeral for William J. Casey, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, might be delayed. The ordinary heavy traffic of a fine weekend day lent a sense of urgency to the travelers. The rites were scheduled for 1:30 p.m. The principle concelebrant of the mass would be the Most Rev. John R. McGann, Bishop of Rockville Centre, the sprawling diocese cut thirty years ago from the back of Brooklyn, leaving the New York City counties of Brooklyn and Queens to fend for themselves without the aid of New York’s wealthiest bedroom communities.

The diocese is very rich, yet parts of it are very poor. No matter where you go in it you are not far from the water, not far from the Atlantic Ocean or from what is known affectionately as “the Sound,” a huge gulp of blue between the exclusive North Shore of Long Island and the equally exclusive shore areas of Connecticut.

The most direct route from LaGuardia Airport to Roslyn Harbor, where the funeral mass was said in a small stone church, is along Northern Boulevard, the route of Gatsby to West Egg, two bays away from where the Casey’s lived. However they traveled, they all got there. The President of the United States, and Mrs. Reagan. The former President of the United States, Mr. Nixon. The present U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Gen. Vernon Walters and his predecessor, Dr. Jeane Kirkpatrick. The Attorney General, Edwin Meese, III, Interior Secretary Donald Hodel, Energy Secretary John S. Herrington, FBI Director William H. Webster, National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci, former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, and contra leader Adolfo Calero. The others were, as one says, too numerous to mention.

The President, traveling as presidents do, was able to get there early. The Bishop, coming from an ordination about 12 miles away, arrived late. The service began well after 2:00 p.m., the President and Mrs. Reagan having been entertained in the parish rectory by the pastor while they waited for Bishop McGann to arrive.

Mrs. Casey and her family sat in the front row. Behind them sat the friends, the colleagues, there to honor the memory of their friend. They listened as the mass progressed. The Bishop’s homily was mundane enough, as bishops’ homilies generally are. His good friend Bill, he said, had done so many things for the diocese. And so he had. Those on Long Island recognized that Bill Casey was ubiquitous, giving and moving and shaking with unquestioned clout on behalf of the dozens of charities he shepherded.

But suddenly the Bishop’s talk turned sour. In rapid succession the charges, the innuendo, came screaming over the heads of the gathered friends and relatives, there to bury this senior citizen, this un-paralleled civil servant. Without question, there were three public policies on this bishop’s mind: Vietnam, nuclear deterrence, and support of the contras. Suddenly prudential judgment was replaced by moral decree, homiletic praise by coy political remarks. Here, in the United States, where bishops are silent about pederasty and pornography in their own institutions, and where good old boys can still get parishes independent of their emotional or professional status, here an unknown bishop tongue-lashed a dead man in front of his wife, family, friends and, not incidentally, his President.

What was the point of the nasty irony of quoting Casey’s 21-year-old letter to the diocesan newspaper? Quite clearly, that is what Casey believed, that we did go to Vietnam “to help the South Vietnamese people develop their economy, create a government, and build a nation.” What was the point of arguing that this well-educated and expansive genius, now in a coffin before him, could not understand ethical debate? He surely was attuned as any Catholic to the bishops’ nuanced acceptance of deterrence in the 1983 pastoral letter. What was the point of announcing that the violence in Central America is caused by the contras? It was the Sandinista who shouted down the Pope when he went there to visit.

Those who study these matters will immediately recognize that the Bishop of Rockville Centre was fundamentally wrong in his fundamental assumptions about the fundamental questions he raised. For example, the major statement made by the U.S. Catholic Conference on U.S. policy in Central America was made on April 17, 1985 by then Archbishop John J. O’Connor of New York and read on his behalf before the Subcommittee on Western Hemispheric Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U. S. House of Representatives by Archbishop James Hickey of Washington. The bishop, announcing his public policy in the middle of this private funeral, was knowingly or unknowingly implying that Bill Casey did not know how to read. In no respect (in their official statement) do the bishops appear “blind to the potential of a communist threat in this Hemisphere,” as Bishop McGann said Bill Casey thought they were, and in no way do they only oppose aid to the contras. On the contrary, what they expressly state is: “Our central moral concern at this point is for a just and peaceful resolution of the conflict and therefore for an end to all military assistance from any outside party. We must oppose military aid from the United States, the Soviet Union, or any other country to any party to the conflict in Nicaragua, whether the Sandinista Government or any irregular military force in conflict with the government.” This is a statement of moral concern, and not one made by blind men.

Earlier in the statement the bishops note that “In Nicaragua, both the U.S. and the Soviet bloc (especially Cuba) are part of the interventionary syndrome.” This statement was made with full recognition that a target of abuse in Nicaragua is the Church, the church of Bishop Vega and the church of Bishop McGann. This is the “objectionable ideological intervention” the bishops note, and this intervention is made by they who find Christianity as repulsive as democracy. As a concelebrant of the funeral mass, Fordham University President Rev. Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J. said to the Long Island Catholic: “I think there is a tendency on the part of many people who are critical, for example, of the U.S. policy in Nicaragua, as I am, to forget what profound differences separate our country from the Soviet Union.” Father O’Hare reportedly defended a 1986 visit to his campus by Casey, a Fordham alumnus, saying he found it “hard to imagine the head of the KGB answering questions like that.”

Of course, the CIA is not the KGB, and Bill Casey was not a baby killer, in Vietnam or in Nicaragua or any place else. The spokesman for Bishop McGann, Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, told the Long Island daily newspaper Newsday that Bishop McGann believed that if he omitted any mention of the “contra issue” it might appear that he, Bishop McGann, had changed his opinion. The spokesman reportedly said, “The bishop did not see it as creating an embarrassment” for the Casey family. Some days later that same spokesman contended that Bishop McGann was surprised at all the publicity. He, Bishop McGann, had given voice to a principle of disagreement, but he did not seek to continue what Msgr. Maniscalco characterized as “the controversy.” Yet rather than drop the matter, the diocesan newspaper, which is edited by Msgr. Maniscalco, devoted the top half of its front page and nearly half of page six to an original story (without a byline) about the funeral, and to a reprinting of the entire text of Bishop McGann’s homily. In addition, the spokesman said that no apology was or would be issued to the Casey family. “He meant what he said,” Msgr. Maniscalco said of Bishop McGann.

As the Christian Science Monitor pointed out in an editorial, “not all Catholics share the bishop’s view.” In fact, the Puebla Institute, a lay Catholic group in New York, has just issued a report based on interviews of Nicaraguan refugees in camps in Honduras and Costa Rica. How startling it is to find that 300,000 people, nearly ten per cent of the Nicaraguan population, has fled the Sandinista regime since 1979.

The Long Island Catholic article reported that at the time of the kiss of peace Bishop McGann said to President Reagan “Bill thought highly of you.” The President replied “I thought highly of him too.” Indeed, the President and Mrs. Reagan took the time to spend a splendid Saturday to honor a man whose principal eulogist, Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick called “one smart lawyer.” He could, she said, “take the guff required to support unpopular ideas … because he had studied the evidence and thought through his positions … because he had built his life on solid foundations.”

There was no effort on the part of his friends to say that Bill Casey followed God’s plan in his public policy. There was no effort to claim his policy recommendations as theocratic doctrine. He was a Christian, that is true. That he lived his public and private lives according to Christian principles should not be called into doubt. He undoubtedly had some unpleasant duties, and many hard decisions. No Christian can lightly enter into violence. No Christian can easily condone it. But we can and must remember that violence takes many forms.


From Bishop McGann’s Homily:

. . . He always saw the United States as the great bulwark of freedom and progress. After visiting South Vietnam in 1966 for the International Rescue Committee, he wrote in our diocesan newspaper, “We went into Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese people develop their economy, create a government, and build a nation.” (Long Island Catholic, June 9,1966.)

His conviction about the fundamentally moral purpose of American actions, I am sure, made in-comprehensible to him the ethical questions raised by me as his bishop, together with all the Catholic Bishops of the United States, about our nation’s defense policy since the dawn of the nuclear age.

I am equally sure that Bill must have thought us Bishops blind to the potential of a communist threat in this Hemisphere as we opposed and continue to oppose the violence wrought in Central America by support of the Contras.

These are not light matters on which to disagree. They are matters of life and death. And I cannot conceal or disguise my fundamental disagreement on these matters with a man I knew and respected.

But I believe that given the world as he saw it, Bill was seeking to do what was best for the United States and for the freedom which allowed him to worship God openly as a Catholic believer. And so my prayer is that Bill Casey, once our country’s Director of Central Intelligence, will now live forever in the presence of Creation’s Central Intelligence — that Intelligence Who, we believe, is also Universal Love and Everlasting Peace.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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