The Priestly Comedy of J. F. Powers

Prince of Darkness and Other Stories

by J.F. Powers
Vintage, 193 pp., $3.75 (paper)

Morte d'Urban

by J.F. Powers
Vintage, 309 pp., $2.95 (paper)

J. F. Powers
J. F. Powers; drawing by David Levine

The recent scandal of Chicago’s late Cardinal Cody was of the innocent, old-fashioned, irresistible kind. Money, power, sex—the ingredients of first-rate scandal all were there, but the tone remained provincial. We felt, in our interest, at once familiar and ashamed, as if we were, eye at the motel room key-hole, watching a small-town pharmacist sweating over his girlfriend. It called up all the Eastern clichés of the Middle West. Cody was accused of diverting diocesan funds to Helen Dolan Wilson, his step-cousin. It was rumored that they had a romantic liaison for many years and that he had bought her an expensive house in Florida.

To an outsider it was rather touching: the old-fashioned, Irish name, the distant kin relationship, the real estate. A modern priest would have done it better, had more fun, not have got caught. And the money would have been placed, somehow, in money market funds, or a tax-free shelter with an untraceable corporate name.

The whole business cannot be taken fully seriously by an Easterner, but one can feel the energy of local obsession in the outrage of the natives, who hear America singing in the stockyards and the railroads and proclaim that theirs is the real America. The Cody case underscores the difference between the New York and Chicago churches. Chicago is a thousand miles west of New York, a thousand miles further from Rome. It opens out onto those large, incomprehensible prairies settled by people without much Irish or Italian blood. Much earlier than Easterners, Midwesterners believed they could be Catholics and real Americans at the same time. Even now, Eastern Catholics have a sense of themselves as part of an immigrant Church—even the Kennedys, with their good teeth and their Harvard degrees, changed things only slightly; people are still surprised when Catholic boys get their own offices in Washington.

The Midwestern Church early on lost its Mediterranean tone. The Irish were in charge, particularly in Chicago—there was Daly in City Hall and Cody in the Chancery—but moving further west the Germans grew in power and the comfort of the ghetto as an imaginative construct was a quickly forgotten temptation. In the middle of the continent, these farmers, businessmen, and their sons held to the faith, but the stuff of their dreams was manufactured in the New World. The self-made man, hearty, well-heeled, at home in first-class trains, in suites at the Palmer House, was the man they wanted their sons to be. They did not dream of these boys taking New York or Washington—to say nothing of Paris or Rome. Chicago was the focus of ambition and mythology. In Chicago, these Catholics could be at the center of the things the Protestants felt too high-minded to want, but moving west they could never have access to real power.

They never believed it, though; they never accepted their differentness. For, dress as…

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