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The Mass-Clock and the Spy: The Catholicization of World War II

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 December 2014


The religious history of World War II in the U.S. has long been dominated by the theme of pluralism. The trials of mobilization and battle fostered inter-religious cooperation. Against a backdrop of Nazi intolerance and godless communism, these collaborative experiences would, in the postwar years, help mute religious conflict and amplify a “Judeo-Christian” consensus. This framing, while compelling, has deflected attention from the distinctive modes with which religious Americans interpreted the war. The work of the National Catholic Community Service (the Catholic arm of the United Service Organizations) illustrates the ways Catholics framed the war as a religious matter. In seeking to build Catholic bridges across the separations of wartime, Catholics amplified the unique moral and spiritual means of their tradition. Two themes—sacramental presence and moral exceptionalism—dominated Catholics' efforts to Catholicize the war. Exploring these efforts reveals the religious arenas within which Catholic soldiers, war workers, and their families were invited to work out their sense of the war and their responsibilities as Catholics and Americans. The stories—often strikingly indifferent or even hostile to the pluralist “consensus”—shed new light on the war and on the history of religious difference in the U.S.

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2014 

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1 Rev. Stedman, Joseph F., ed., My Military Missal (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Confraternity of the Precious Blood, 1942), 128129Google Scholar. Other versions of the clock explain that Central Time was used in order to situate the servicemen within a three-hour window, 5 a.m.–8 a.m., the time of day when most masses were offered across the entire continental U.S.

2 Pecklers, Keith F., The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America, 1926–1955 (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1998), 3034Google Scholar.

3 On the “long nineteenth century” in Catholic history see O'Malley, John W., What Happened at Vatican II? (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008)Google Scholar.

4 Catholic teaching about sacramentals has changed since the Second Vatican Council. Recent definitions have indicated that sacramentals are things or actions that “are sacred signs bearing a kind of resemblance to the sacraments; they signify effects . . . obtained through the Church's intercession.” They “dispose people to receive the effects of the sacraments and make holy various occasions of human life.” Definitions from the era of World War II were slightly less cautious, arguing that sacramentals are used to “obtain” rather than only “signify” spiritual effects through the church's intercessory prayer. In both cases sacramentals were understood as “little sacraments”—less powerful than the sacraments, but more powerful than individual prayer. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington, D.C.: USCCB Publishing, 1997)Google Scholar, §1667; see also Chupungco, Anscar J., “Sacraments and Sacramentals” in Handbook for Liturgical Studies, ed. Chupungco, Anscar J., vol. 4, Sacraments and Sacramentals (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2000), xxivxxvGoogle Scholar; New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Thompson/Gale, 2002)Google Scholar, s.v. “sacramentals.”

5 Hesburgh would go on to have a stellar Catholic career, eventually becoming the president of the University of Notre Dame. When they created a fictional GI for their newsletter, the editors often used the name “Mac” and did not use quotation marks. Here, the story appears as a letter from “Mack” with quotation marks. Contact frequently reprinted letters and comments from readers.

6 Shay, Philip Wendell and Hesburgh, Fr. Theodore eds., Contact in Action (Washington, D.C.: NCCS, 1945), 2023n30Google Scholar. Italics in original.

7 Rev. Flynn, Patrick J., “Brothers in Arms,” in The Priest Goes to War, ed. Grant, Dorothy Fremont (Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce Publishing, 1944), 34Google Scholar.

8 Most recently, Kevin Schultz has highlighted the war as a crucible of religious pluralism. Schultz, Kevin M., Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011) 312Google Scholar, 41–67. See also Thomas Bruscino, A Nation Forged in War: How World War II Taught Americans to Get Along (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010). Both books start with the story of four heroic chaplains killed aboard the Dorchester, a U.S. Army transport ship sunk in 1943. Tellingly, Bruscino's ends with the election of Kennedy to the U.S. presidency.

9 For an influential articulation of this argument related to Catholics see Gleason, Philip, “The Crisis of Americanization” in Contemporary Catholicism in the United States, ed. Gleason, Philip (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969), 910Google Scholar; Moore's recent book captured the promise and dilemmas of WWII as context for Jewish assimilation. See Moore, Deborah Dash, GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004)Google Scholar. Gleason explores the ambivalence of Catholic change during this period while Moore describes abiding bigotries facing America's Jewish veterans in the postwar period.

10 Halsey, William M., The Survival of American Innocence: Catholicism in an Era of Disillusionment (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980)Google Scholar. Jonathan Ebel's religious history of World War I argues against a general “disillusionment” after the war. The idea of Catholic “innocence,” as described by Halsey, points to one group who did not conform to the “disillusionment” story. Ebel, Jonathan, Faith in the Fight: Religion and the American Soldier in the Great War (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Halsey, Survival of American Innocence, 5, 170, 175.

12 The popular journal Ave Maria, amid its own vociferous opposition to U.S. entry into the war, had amplified this suspicion of Jews in 1940, when it argued, “What is usually called anti-Semitism today is nothing but anti-Communism.” Pro-communist Jews were to blame for American anti-Semitism, which would disappear only “if the important Jewish societies would take the same open stand against Communism that they take against Nazism and Fascism.” Lord's later reference to New York City with its “literary cliques” and “smart obscenities in Broadway cafes and Riverside Drive apartments and the refashioned stables of Greenwich Village” added to the coded message. “Rabbi Goldberg Condemns Communism,” The Ave Maria (October 12, 1940): 452–53. On Ave Maria's anti-war stance see “Keeping out of war,” The Ave Maria (September 30, 1939): 438; “A Reader Wants to Know,” The Ave Maria (December 30, 1939): 855–856; “War Correspondence,” The Ave Maria (March 16, 1940): 325; “The Madness of War,” The Ave Maria (May 4, 1940): 547; “The President Takes Sides,” The Ave Maria (January 27, 1940): 99; “A Voice of Experience,” The Ave Maria (October 5, 1940): 419. On ambivalence toward Jews see “Jews Annoy the Archbishop,” The Ave Maria (October 21, 1939): 534-535; “A Materialistic Viewpoint,” The Ave Maria (November 11, 1939): 633; “News From Abroad,” The Ave Maria (November 18, 1939): 665.

13 Slightly less than a third of U.S. military personnel were Roman Catholic, compared with about 22% of the U.S. population as a whole. Crosby, Donald F., Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1994)Google Scholar, xix.

14 Lord, Daniel S., The War and Ourselves (St. Louis, Mo.: The Queens Work, 1942)Google Scholar. For evidence of this kind of argument at a more local level, see “Month by Month” (October 1, 1941), box 1, fol. 8, p. 3, “Bulletins and Newsletters,” Archives of the Indianapolis Diocesan Council of the National Council of Catholic Women. See also “Archbishop Ritter,” in “Minutes of the third quarterly meeting of the IAC NCCW” (August 29, 1945), box 1, fol. 4, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis.

15 Lynn, Rita L., The National Catholic Community Service in World War II (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1949), 114Google Scholar.

16 The mobility of Americans during this short period rivaled that of any period in American history. By war's end, approximately thirty million Americans would relocate, at least for a short time, as a part of either military or industrial mobilization. Bodnar, John, The “Good War” in American Memory (Baltimore, M.d.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010)Google Scholar, 20.

17 Bodnar, The “Good War” in American Memory, 19–24.

18 The Young Men's Christian Association, the Young Women's Christian Association, the Jewish Welfare Board, the Salvation Army, and the Travelers Aid Association also began mobilizing for wartime service.

19 The USO would have an active executive board made up of representatives from all the member agencies as well as representatives of the government. The board would develop common policies and regulations not only for the dispersal of funds and the location and leadership of clubs, but also for the structure and organization of operations. Individual member organizations would operate the clubs, but they would do so in harmony with general principles agreed upon by the USO. USO Shows, Inc. spun off from the USO and became a subsidiary entity with the mission of entertaining of U.S. service men and women overseas. Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 16-46.

20 Crosby, Battlefield Chaplains, xix, 161. The military operated with a ratio of about one chaplain for every 1200 servicemen. Crosby notes that bishops and religious superiors did not send enough chaplains overseas, citing high demand at home.

21 Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 63.

22 Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 152.

23 “So You're Going to be a Junior Hostess!” and “U.S.O. Junior Hostess Corps: Orders of the Day,” box 61, fol. 71, NCCS, American Catholic Historical Research Center, Catholic University of America (hereafter ACHRC-CUA), Washington, D.C.

24 Lynn identifies Dr. Franklin Dunham, the first Executive Director of the NCCS, as the originator of this USO motto. Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 35.

25 By insisting on a single, unified organization the government sought to streamline its involvement while avoiding the problems of World War I. During that war the religious service organizations competed with one another for access to prime locations where they could focus attention on their own co-religionists. A more centralized USO would enhance efficiency and limit the opportunities for competition. Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 18–23, 25.

26 Schultz, Tri-Faith America, 44.

27 “Salute to NCCS” (1945), box 86, fol. 12, p. 5. ACHRC-CUA.

28 Winchell, Meghan K., Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 2008)Google Scholar, 2.

29 “NCCS Still Serves” (1946), box 86, fol. 15, p. 14. ACHRC-CUA.

30 Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 248–249. See also G. Kurt Piehler, “A Religious History of the American Serviceman and Servicewoman in WWII,” Rockefeller Archive Center Research Reports Online, 2011,

31 Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 80.

32 Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 64.

33 NCCS reported receiving $21 million for its operations from the USO. “NCCS: Arm of the Church in Wartime,” Catholic Action (July 1945). Annoyance radiated from NCCS officials when their invitation to cooperate with NCCS operations was initially rebuffed by the Holy Name Society, which considered its operations “exclusively religious” in supposed contrast to NCCS. NCCS replied reasserting the “definitely religious character” of the NCCS and “every other organization of the USO.” Fr. Harry Graham to Monsignor Ready, July 30, 1941, box 79, fol. 2, ACHRC-CUA; H.J. Carroll to Monsignor Ready, August 12, 1941, box 79, fol. 2, ACHRC-CUA.

34 “Religion and the spiritual meant utterly different things to NCCS and the other organizations,” Lynn wrote. The USO mandated that religious display be limited to the offices of club directors. Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 36.

35 Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 84. Piehler, in “A Religious History of the American Serviceman and Servicewoman in WWII,” describes intense conflicts between Protestant and Catholic members of USO.

36 Bishop Edward Myers to Francis Matthews, quoted in Francis Matthews to Most Rev. Edward Mooney, April 1, 1943, ACHRC-CUA. The NCCS representative, Matthews, noted that both Britain and Canada had allowed “civilian agencies with a definite religious background and programme” into combat areas.

37 James Hennessey, S.J. describes the war as “another in a long series of rites of passage” for U.S. Catholics. Hennessey, , American Catholics: A History of the Roman Catholic Community in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981)Google Scholar, 280.

38 Fussell, Paul, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 1319Google Scholar.

39 Philip Wendell Shay and Fr. Theodore Hesburgh eds., Contact: The Military Way (1945), Printed material of John Francis Noll (PNOL), series 7, pamphlet 33, p. 12n27, University of Notre Dame (Archives hereafter UNDA), Indiana. A similar story, quoting the soldier from his hospital bed after the explosion, appeared in Dorothy Fremont Grant, War is My Parish: Anecdote and Comment (Milwaukee, Wisc.: Bruce Publishing, 1944)Google Scholar.

40 Contact: The Military Way, 11.

41 Contact in Action, 11.

42 Contact in Action, 11.

43 Contact in Action, 18–19.

44 Philip Wendell Shay, Contact no. 8 (n.d.), PNOL series 7, pamphlet 32, pp. 3, 7–8, UNDA.

45 Philip Wendell Shay and Fr. Theodore Hesburgh eds., Contact: Things Catholic at War (1945), PNOL series 7, pamphlet 34, pp. 27–29n28, UNDA.

46 Contact in Action, front matter.

47 Lynn, Catholic Community Service, 255. See also “NCCS: Arm of the Church in Wartime” in Catholic Action (July 1945). Individual NCCS clubs also eagerly documented their contributions to these efforts. One Cincinnati area club reported producing 30,000 religious kits, which included a rosary, medal, Sacred Heart Badge, and a short prayer.The NCCS Bulletin III, no. 11 (March–April 1944): 4Google Scholar, NYPL.

48 U.S. Catholic servicemen and women amounted to about 4.8 million, about 30% of the total.

49 Sleepy Eye Scrap Drive Inspires Some Reflections on NCCS Role in Religion,” in The NCCS Bulletin II, no. 13 (April 1943): 3Google Scholar, NYPL; See also “Salute to NCCS,” 10; Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 83–84. On urgent demand for rosaries, see Grant, War is My Parish, 21–22.

50 Lynn, National Catholic Community Service, 81.

51 For Our Mothers,The NCCS Bulletin III, no. 1 (May 1943): 1Google Scholar, NYPL.

52 Homefronters Today . . . Homemakers Tomorrow,” in The NCCS Bulletin IV, no. 4 (August 1944): 23Google Scholar.

53 Contact: Things Catholic at War, 15–16.

54 Contact in Action, 15.

55 Contact: Things Catholic at War, 15–16.

56 Contact: Things Catholic at War, 16, 18.

57 Contact: Things Catholic at War, 16, 18–19.

58 Contact: Things Catholic at War, 7–12.

59 Contact: Things Catholic at War, 14–15.

60 The NCCS Bulletin III, no. 10 (February 1944): 4, NYPL.

61 Grant, War is My Parish, 27.

62 Philip Wendell Shay and Fr. Theodore Hesburgh eds., Contact: Building for Tomorrow, n.d., 10–11 n23, UNDA.

63 Grant, War is My Parish, 23.

64 Grant, War is My Parish, 24.

65 For recent exploration of “good death” see Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2008), 3–32. Jonathan Ebel, Faith in the Fight, 76–104; Becker, AnnetteWar and Faith: The Religious Imagination in France, 1914–1930 (New York: Berg, 1998)Google Scholar.

66 Grant, War is My Parish, 22.

67 Grant, War is My Parish, 28. This same story opens Crosby's study of U.S. Catholic chaplains in the Second World War and comes from Army and Navy Chaplain 14 (Jan-Feb 1944): 31Google Scholar. Crosby, Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II, xv.

68 Grant, War is My Parish, 25–26.

69 Contact: Things Catholic at War, 26.

70 Contact: Things Catholic at War, 20.

71 Schultz confirms that Catholics were the slowest and most cautious partners in America's tri-faith party. Likewise, historian Deborah Dash Moore, while demonstrating the gradual emergence of “Judeo-Christianity” as a “standard operating procedure” in the U.S. military, also reveals that on many occasions, Catholics were deeply hesitant to embrace this consensus. Schultz, Tri-Faith America, 59, 63. Moore, GI Jews, 137, 152–153.

72 Rose, Kenneth, Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II (New York: Routledge, 2012)Google Scholar; Childers, Thomas, Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming from World War II (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, 2009)Google Scholar; Bodnar, The “Good War” in American Memory. For memoir see Collins, Julia, My Father's War: A Memoir (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002)Google Scholar.

73 Halsey, Survival of American Innocence, 7, 173.

74 Halsey, Survival of American Innocence, 173–175.