The Tragic Christian

Father James Carney left St. Louis to work with the poor in Honduras, putting him at odds with both church and state. Fifteen years after his mysterious death, a new CIA report raises more questions than answers.

There never has been a funeral for Carney, and compared to the pomp and preparation for this week's papal visit, few public accolades have been offered on his behalf. One of his former high-school classmates, Monsignor Jerome F. Wilkerson, recalls the inauspicious memorial Mass in 1993 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Carney's disappearance. "It was in this tiny chapel in Jesuit Hall (on the SLU campus), across the street from the College Church," says Wilkerson, the pastor of St. Joseph's Church in Clayton. "Some lady wandered in, in the middle of the Mass, who didn't know anything about what it was about." Besides the stranger, only a handful of friends and family attended the service.

Wilkerson adds that as a student at St. Louis University High School, Carney "never shared with me that he was thinking of the priesthood."

His personal road to Damascus still lay in front of him.

Radical Reformation
Carney was born in Chicago in 1924, of German-Irish ancestry. His father worked for 43 years as a salesman for the Burroughs Adding Machine Co., a career that demanded frequent transfers. The family, which grew to seven children, moved to Dayton and Toledo, Ohio, before settling in St. Louis, on Waterman Avenue in the St. Roch Parish. During his senior year, Carney walked through Forest Park to St. Louis University High. After graduating in 1942, he attended SLU on a football scholarship.

Then World War II intervened. Carney was drafted, despite myopic vision and a knee injury sustained on the gridiron that would plague him for the rest of his life. He reported for duty at Jefferson Barracks and eventually toured France as a combat engineer. In his autobiography, he wrote about the difficulties of living piously in the military and of enduring the profanity of enlisted men. Finding the inherent inequity of the Army more insufferable, he refused to attend officer-training school on three occasions and pulled time in the stockade for not saluting a superior. Later, as a military policeman, he disobeyed orders and continued to fraternize with prisoners of war, seeing in the enemy a common humanity absent from the stereotypes in Army propaganda films.

Most significantly, the war caused Carney to doubt his belief in God and to seek spiritual guidance in the works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, all the while witnessing the horrid effects of human deprivation around him.

"I wanted to vomit when I saw hundreds of French children, women, old people, refugees from the war, fighting with each other to get a bit of the garbage that we soldiers threw out after each meal," wrote Carney. On the outskirts of Marseilles, he observed more abysmal conditions at a refugee camp for North Africans: "They lived like animals: practically naked, sleeping on the bare ground without blankets, eating whatever garbage they could get. The kids were all naked, with their bellies swollen."

Carney returned to St. Louis in May 1946 and enrolled at SLU under the GI Bill. That summer, with his brother Pat and a friend, he hitchhiked and rode the rails to California and Minnesota. In the fall of 1947, he transferred to another Jesuit school, the University of Detroit, to major in civil engineering. As part of a work-study program, he labored on the assembly line at a Ford auto plant, where he became acquainted with communist members of the United Auto Workers. Through them, he discovered Marxism and the writings of Frederick Engels, who collaborated with Karl Marx on the theory of dialectical materialism.

The Marxian interpretation of history and religion conflicted with everything Carney knew. During the prewar years, his parents faithfully listened to the broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic radio evangelist who preached anti-communism, anti-Semitism and support for the Third Reich with equal zeal. As Carney recalls in his memoir, "Everything that was not Catholic, North American, bourgeois was (without doubt subconsciously) considered and treated as an enemy."

It would take a lifetime for Carney to synthesize Christian dogma with the communist dialectic. He would eventually carry out this task not by intellectual exercise but through the way he chose to live his daily life. Meanwhile, he nurtured a passion for jazz, the big-band sounds of the Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller orchestras. After having cavorted across Europe, with a series of girlfriends, he fell in love with a woman in Detroit. But Carney ultimately chose divinity over marriage.

He entered St. Stanislaus Seminary in Florissant in August 1948, planning to become a missionary to Honduras. To his surprise, his brother Pat joined him there.

In the beginning, Carney loathed the classical training required by the Society of Jesus -- the Jesuits -- and his disdain for authority continued. But his nonconformity did provide him with an affinity for the disadvantaged youth who attended St. Francis Xavier, SLU's parish elementary school. While counseling juvenile truants, he met Father Dismas Clark, a Jesuit rebel whose life story would be dramatized in the 1961 feature film Hoodlum Priest. Clark, a jailhouse chaplain who advocated social justice, often condemned wealthy benefactors of the university for exploiting the poor.

Warned by his religious superiors against associating with this pariah, Carney disobeyed and instead followed Clark's example. "I criticized in class and in Jesuit meetings the bourgeois, middle-class style of life in our 'palace.' From our back windows, we could see the poor, dirty, ramshackle apartment buildings of the black families, and the contrast was too much for me," wrote Carney. "I could not keep quiet." Among seminarians, Carney spread the rumor that his great-grandmother had been a black woman.

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