A Child’s Garden of Catholicism


John J. Dunphy

(Originally published in Secular Humanist Bulletin 29:1 Spring 2013).

When I was a boy, my library included a forty-volume set of children’s booklets collectively titled Crusade. I recently discovered them packed away in a box and browsed through the volumes. As a Catholic child, these booklets delighted me. Rereading them as a humanist adult, however, I found the series equal parts amusing and disturbing.

Written by priests, nuns and lay authors, the magazine-size booklets were published three times a month in the mid-1950s by the Chicago-based John J. Crawley and Company. A plethora of color illustrations make the booklets appealing to children. Crusade is primarily composed of three segments: selected Biblical narratives rewritten for children, thumbnail biographies of saints, and a dictionary of Catholic terminology. Perusing the dictionary was a jaw-dropping experience.

For example, the entry for conversion is just a short paragraph, but it includes a priceless drawing of a stereotyped coal-black African male garbed only in leopard skin and feathers. Although kneeling before a crucifix in obvious reverence, his facial expression conveys bafflement. Perhaps he’s wondering whether all new Catholics are required to undergo crucifixion as an initiation rite.

Evolution, we learn in another entry, “has not been proved,” although the authors concede that humans “could have been created this way, by slow changes, because God can do whatever He likes.” The authors maintain that one of our primitive forebears became human only when “God, at some time, breathed a soul into it.” This notion is creatively illustrated by a drawing that depicts a small ape, a larger ape and a naked white man seen from the rear who is apparently receiving soul-imparting golden spiked rays from the hands of God. Since Crusade is intended for children, the illustrator has these golden rays judiciously concealing most of the man’s buttocks. The deity is depicted as an elderly, white-robed Caucasian male with long white hair and a beard. The two apes are gazing with understandably blank expressions as this miracle-in-progress.

I discovered that my Crusade set is missing a few volumes. The I segment of the dictionary is incomplete and begins with “Italy,” which means that I don’t have the volume that would have defined Inquisition. I would give my eyeteeth (no pun intended) to see how these devout Catholic authors introduced children to that particular facet of church history. I should think that even the series’ most talented illustrators would have found it challenging to depict the use of thumb-screws and the rack in such a manner as to put the church in a good light and not give nightmares to young readers.

A mixed marriage is a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic. The entry for this tragedy states that the Catholic Church forbids such unions because the “Catholic person may neglect his faith or even lose it.” When the church grants a dispensation that allows such a union to occur, the resulting children must be raised as Catholics. Why? As the entry explains, “Now, suppose a king marry a beggar maid, as you read in some of the old fairy stories. Should be not try to share some of his riches with his wife? Should the children be raised as princes and princesses, or as beggars?” Such loaded rhetorical questions would make some non-Catholics want to throw rocks through the windows of the nearest Catholic church.

While racism is indeed condemned in the race prejudice entry, it’s done so in language that assumes the superiority of white civilization at a time when most African nations were still European-ruled colonies. “Missioners in Africa,” the authors write, “have taken orphaned babies from the most primitive tribes and raised them along with babies with a background of hundreds of years of European culture.” They then magnanimously proclaim that “Given the same treatment and training, the native children grew up in every way equal to the Europeans.”

The work’s Imprimatur (Latin for “Let it be printed”) was issued by Francis Cardinal Spellman, the archbishop of New York. Spellman was a power to be reckoned with in the United States of years past, and no politician — Catholic or otherwise — dared to risk incurring his wrath. An ultraconservative who supported Senator Joseph McCarthy, Spellman once used seminarians to break a strike waged by unionized grave diggers. Known as “Franny” to his sex partners, Spellman possessed a voracious sexual appetite. Journalist Michelangelo Signorile noted that Spellman in the 1940s had his personal limousine pick up a male dancer who was appearing in a Broadway show and bring him to his residence. When the dancer asked Spellman how he could get away with this, Spellman replied, “Who would believe that?” Material in the files of J. Edgar Hoover confirms Spellman’s homosexuality and numerous gay lovers.

Richard Ginder, the Catholic priest who served as Crusade’s contributing editor and wrote a brief introduction to each booklet, also occupied a prominent position in the pantheon of the American Right. A member of the John Birch Society, Ginder consistently lambasted Democrats for being soft on communism in his column for Catholic newspapers. He also railed against pornography, which he pretty much defined as all film, art and literature that wasn’t as puritanical as the Catholic Church. Like Spellman, however, Ginder led a double life. A police raid on his apartment in 1969 yielded a glut of pornography, including photographs of Ginder engaged in sex acts with teenage boys and diaries chronicling his sexual exploits. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten years probation. Ginder was convicted in 1978 of sodomizing two sixteen-year-old boys. He was killed in a car crash in 1984 at age seventy. Ironically, Ginder’s introductions to the Crusade booklets were titled “Behind the Scenes with Father Ginder.” In light of what we now know about Ginder’s sexual escapades, the very thought of being “behind the scenes” with him seems pretty creepy.

Ironically, Ginder is still an icon for some politically conservative Catholics and Latin Mass traditionalists, who are either unaware of his fall from grace or believe that he was framed — an all too common belief among many Catholics, who are convinced that their priests are incapable of wrongdoing. His writings for children are even offered for sale on the Internet. One site praised the Catholic Children’s Treasure Box, a series of books coauthored by Ginder in the 1950s, as “a wonderful combination of fun, innocence and the Catholic faith! They teach the faith in a simple way, and they inspire children’s hearts to love God.” How anyone — even the most fervently devout Catholic — could possibly use words such as fun and innocence when describing children’s books that were coauthored by a pedophile priest baffles and disgusts this humanist. The Crusade dictionary entry for conscience defines it as “the voice of God for us” that “warns us when we are about to do something wrong.” That voice of God must have been on mute for Ginder whenever he raped minors.

John J. Dunphy latest book, “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” will be published by McFarland.

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.