Pete Seeger: the tall and the small


I looked at Pete, the first black president of the United States was seated to his right, and I thought of the incredible journey that Pete had taken. ..At some point, he decided he’d be a walking, singing reminder of all of America’s history. He’d be a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along, to push American events towards more humane and justified ends. It was like, “Pete, you outlasted the bastards, man! 

Bruce Springsteen  on Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday in 2009

Disagreement with the magisterium may render an important service to the Church, helping it to respond to the signs of the times in light of the Catholic faith…This may be a duty of conscience.” 

Gregory Baum

Pete Seeger died yesterday, a man beloved by most. He lived a long and principled life with music as his nonviolent weapon. I met Seeger about a decade ago when the film about his manager Harold Leventhal (Isn’t This a Time) was  shown at the old Downtown Loews. The remaining Weavers sang a few songs and there was a party later at the Royal York. I happened to be walking in with my friend Canadian jazz singer Don Francks when I literally bumped into the American legend. In retrospect I was shocked at how tall he was and  recalling that impression today about his physical size, I ruminated that he really did stand tall in his long commitment to justice and the common good. Pete  also paid a price he paid for his truth telling (The Weavers were blackballed in 50s  as part of the McCarthy scare). This set me thinking about all the “small” men in the last 35 years of Catholic reaction.

Here I am thinking of clergy and right wing bloviators who fit  the description  in W H Auden’s Unknown Citizen:

Our researchers into Public Opinion are content

That he held the proper opinions for the time of the year;

When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.

No need to name them here but they were the ones who ascended in last 2 pontificates, who tailored their views to the forces of reaction. They were in vogue, on the telly and in the paper genuflecting to local bishops whose careers were rewarded for following the leader in Rome.

The last three decades were not a great time for the Catholic Church. The earth-shaking  Council created an equal reaction. It was simply Newton’s second law, pure physics. The reaction was led  by the Polish pope whose national church had been frozen in time next to the communist monolith. For historical reasons  Poland had not had its  Vatican ll spring.

As a great British theologian aptly said, “some people just show up at the wrong time.” John Paul ll was that man. A genuine justice man on the world stage, he was anything but inside the walls of the church. He literally imposed his ossified theology on the whole church and the Catholic Church lost a brilliant chance to modernize itself. Millions left in disgust as critical thinking was shut down. Power was totally centralized and the Church appeared more like a Politburo than a “discipleship of equals” and the People of God.

Pope Paul Vl, much maligned, was  a sophisticated Vatican insider who understood the necessity of ongoing renovation and he allowed our best theologians to exert peer review on the thousand flowers which were blooming. He silenced no theologians. He recognized them as loyal teachers in service to the universal church. Contrast that with the shocking intellectual abuse of Woytyla and his henchman Ratzinger. They both tried to shoe horn critical thought into one narrow channel. As Chicago theologian David Tracy said at the time, “It won’t work.” And it didn’t. Many careers however were ended and good men and women were sacrificed on the the narrow grounds of ideology. Uninspiring men, absolutely loyal to Rome,rock solid against birth control and  female ordination were placed in charge of major sees. It was if the clock stood still. All in all  It was a shameful period.

But like Pete Seeger, many stood tall, great principled resisters to the “ice age”(Rahner) we had to endure, There were many national theological conferences who refused to buckle under. Thse were professional theologians who loved the church but were cast into nether darkness by both Woytyla and Ratzinger. There were hundreds of such teachers who were denied positions in Catholic institutions. We know the names of the more famous ones but many felt the chill of non-promotion and marginalization. Theology in Catholic institutions particularly in the moral realm ground to a halt

”If the Pope does what does not belong to his office, he cannot demand obedience in the name of Catholicism,” some 163 theologians from West Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland stated in January of 1989.

Now known as the Cologne Declaration it said. ”In such a case, he must expect opposition.” Their objections were tripartite:

• John Paul’s appointment of bishops “without respecting the suggestions of the local churches and neglecting their established rights,” which runs counter to the Catholic tradition that the selection of bishops “is not some private choice of the pope’s”;

• The Vatican’s refusal to grant official license to theologians with whom it disagrees, part of its general campaign to silence dissent, representing “a dangerous intrusion into the freedom of research and teaching”;

• The pope’s “overstepping and enforcing in an inadmissible way” his proper doctrinal competence, insisting that every pronouncement of the magisterium be treated as ipso facto infallible. The declaration called special attention to the ban on birth control.

Complaining that the collegiality called for by Vatican II was “being smothered by a new Roman centralism,” the declaration predicted: “If the pope undertakes things that are not part of his role, then he cannot demand obedience in the name of Catholicism. He must expect dissent.”

From June 6-9 of 1990, the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) with Canadian Basilian Walter Principe as its president, affirmed “the right of theologians to freedom of research, their right to raise questions, their right to re-examine the meaning of dogmas, and even more to explore the import of past authoritative statements by the magisterium, and finally the right within a faithful unprejudiced presentation of the official teaching to disagree publicly with that teaching under certain circumstances.”

The statement “Do not Extinguish the Spirit” was critical of the growing chill within the Church and the increasing denigration of theologians who were now seen as “dissenters,” rather than loyalists who had a different opinion. Principe addressed the Vatican criticism about “harm being done to the faithful by theologians.” He countered with the harm being done by “the Vatican issuing of documents without prior discussion and consultation with bishops and theologians, their inhibiting legitimate discussion by premature decisions on complicated questions, their condemnation or silencing of theologians and their presentation of reformable teaching almost as if they were matters of faith.” Do not extinguish the Spirit was concerned about “excessive Roman centralization” that diminishes the role of local bishops and which impugned the authority of bishops’ conferences.

This brave statement well summarizes the general disenchantment with this papacy.

While the theologians raised objections, the best educated generation of Catholics were becoming restless at the attempted ecclesial coup and the overturning of Vatican ll.


And then 2002 happened, The explosion of the sex abuse scandal and church coverups, generally by the servile bishops promoted by JP ll and Ratzinger. 55 Boston priests told the imperious  Cardinal Law it was time to go. The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer prize for uncovering the rot  which a bloated church had allowed to fester for decades.

The laity was energized. The sensus fidelium was rediscovered, the fact that each baptized person has a sensus fidei,  the indwelling of the  Spirit which was not a preserve of  a celibate priesthood but was present in the whole Body. It was basic Vatican ll stuff we had forgotten:  “the whole body of the faithful have received an anointing” (Lumen Gentium #12,)

The Church i.e. the institution  cannot speak without listening to the sensus fidelium. Even the autocratic pope began to understand this shortly before his death. He was worn down by the fierce resistance to his dictatorial style and finally in 2004 said,  “Certainly this will involve a conscious effort on the part of each bishop to develop, within his particular Church, structures of communion and participation which make it possible, without prejudice to his personal responsibility for decisions he is called to make by virtue of his apostolic authority, to listen to the Spirit who lives and speaks in the faithful.”

This of course has yet to happen. Power historically concedes nothing and we have yet to be consulted on major issues.

And now a new pope has arrived, a Vatican ll man. The small men are in retreat. Meanwhile in the life of Pete Seeger we once again realize that “the Spirit blows where it wills” (John 3:8) and the Roman Church best realize that  a gale force may be coming.


  1. 1

    That’s quite a construct. But the evidence is emerging that Pope Francis is not the liberal lefty you are hoping he is. Here are some points from his address to Notre Dame:

    (Vatican Radio) Pope Francis on Thursday met with a delegation from the University of Notre Dame (USA) on the occasion of the inauguration of the University’s “Rome Center.”

    In his address to the delegation, the Holy Father said he was “confident that the new Center will contribute to the University’s mission by exposing students to the unique historical, cultural and spiritual riches of the Eternal City, and by opening their minds and hearts to the impressive continuity between the faith of Saints Peter and Paul, and the confessors and martyrs of every age, and the Catholic faith passed down to them in their families, schools and parishes.”

    Pope Francis spoke about the “outstanding contribution” Notre Dame has made to the Church in the United States “through its commitment to the religious education of the young and to serious scholarship inspired by confidence in the harmony of faith and reason in the pursuit of truth and virtue,” and thanked the University for its commitment “to supporting and strengthening Catholic elementary and secondary school education throughout the United States.”

    The Pope also spoke about the vision of Notre Dame’s founder, Father Edward Sorin, a member of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, calling it “central to the University’s distinctive identity and its service to the Church and American society.” Referring to the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium, he spoke about “the missionary dimension of Christian discipleship,” which “ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities.” “Essential in this regard,” he continued, “is the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors.” Pope Francis said, “It is my hope that the University of Notre Dame will continue to offer unambiguous testimony to this aspect of its foundational Catholic identity, especially in the face of efforts, from whatever quarter, to dilute that indispensable witness.”

    Ted: Ouch!!!!! What was that last point?

    Pope Francis: I’ll repeat it for you: “…the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors.”

    Ted: Double ouch! I wasn’t sure if I heard correctly, Your holiness. Could you repeat that please!

    Pope Francis: Yes, certainly Ted: “…the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors”.

    Ted: I’m sorry, Pope Francis. Whenever I hear “uncompromising” and “Church’s moral teaching” and “defense” and “authoritatively proclaimed”, my blood pressure goes up and my mind shuts down, I can’t hear a thing, just loud ringing in my ears as if someone boxed them. Can you repeat that one last time?

    Pope Francis: Sure, my dear son Ted: “…the uncompromising witness of Catholic universities to the Church’s moral teaching, and the defense of her freedom, precisely in and through her institutions, to uphold that teaching as authoritatively proclaimed by the magisterium of her pastors.

    Ted: Ouch! I feel like I was just punched in the head. What’s going on?

    Pope Francis: I can help you Ted. You see, it’s very easy to explain your difficulties. You are getting your information about me from the media, and there is a thing called ‘bias’ that’s very prevalent. They take pieces of what I said in one place, and join it to a piece in another place, take that new construct and join it with something I said at the end of the interview, and they create a narrative that is misleading and untrue to what I said. So you have to learn to be a little more critical and not so gullible. As I said in my first interview, “I am a son of the Church”. I don’t dissent from Church teaching. That’s why I was shunned by my order, alienated. I wasn’t leftist enough for them.

    Ted: Who are you? I don’t believe you are Pope Francis. You sound nothing like the guy I read about it Time Magazine or Rolling Stone. You hate Benedict, you hate John Paul II, and you love Mao and Castro and all these good people. Get away from this blog. This is only for people who think like me, and who do not dissent from my authority. People who come on this blog and argue against me are not worth my time, which is why I don’t give them any of my time. It is below me to come on and argue with them. I am way above them; it would hurt my back to stoop that low. Anyways, I don’t believe you addressed Notre Dame. I think that was Benedict XVI who disguised his voice on radio just to mess with you. He’s jealous of all the attention you are getting, and he thinks you are opening the windows that JP II shut. In fact, you might be Benedict for all I know. He’s heard about me, everyone has heard about me. I’m the great Ted Schmidt, the one who really knows. Not like you, Benedict. We’re taking back the Vatican II Church, Benny boy, so don’t try to stop us.

  2. 3
    wmgrace Says:

    We can see why Pete Seeger made it to number one on the FBI hit list – WW2 vet, outspoken advocate for nuclear disarmament, anti-Vietnam war protester, environmentalist, friend and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, supporter of the American constitution, to mention only some of his subversive activities.

    When the FBI couldn’t successfully convict him on a contempt charge (it was overturned) they decided that it didn’t really matter anyway, because they could sentence him to a life of harassment and musical obscurity. The sentence was carried out by all of the unquestioning drones in the music industry and all of the other “unknown citizens” who needed to be told what and how to think.

    But he kept on, and found his way out of the maze. Just like good theologians sometimes do.

  3. 4

    What’s the difference between a banjo and a trampoline?

    ans: most people take off their shoes to jump on a trampoline.

    It wasn’t his views that were a threat to the U.S. establishment, it was his singing and the songs he wrote. Gosh, have you heard him sing and play?

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