- Historic Sites
The Radio Priest
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
About 1935, anno Domini, the Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, was perhaps the most beloved and most hated, the most respected and most feared man in the United States. His Sunday afternoon broadcasts during the thirties were avidly followed by a radio audience of between thirty and fifty million Americans, and his weekly newspaper, Social Justice, published by his massive National Union for Social Justice, claimed a paid circulation of well over a million. Social justice was the message he preached, and when he translated this into specific issues, thousands of Coughlmites marched at his command to the telegraph office to notify their congressmen of their leader’s wishes. His denunciation of plans to have the United States join the World Court in 1935 brought 20,000 telegrams to the Senate—which rejected the plans.
His bishop once described him as “the voice of God,” and indeed, to many Americans his almost hypnotizing voice, during the confusing gloom of the Depression, seemed to proffer confidence, direction, and trust. His closest associates were charmed by his warm graciousness, his courtly manner, his infectious humor, his way with an anecdote; in a classroom, from the primary level to the university, he exhibited the rare gift of an inspired teacher.
Others—and they, too, numbered m the millions—were dismayed at the “spectacle” of a Roman Catholic priest “involved” in politics; they were suspicious of his motives and alarmed by his evident power; they read sinister implications into his utterances; they were stunned and shocked when “the radio priest” ripped off his clerical collar and denounced the President as a “liar"; they considered him, among other things, a vicious demagogue.
Coughlin backed Franklin D. Roosevelt (“It is either Roosevelt or rum, ” he proclaimed) until he decided that there was nothing new about the New Deal. Convinced that the Roosevelt administration was “soft” on Communism, he launched an abortive third party in 1936, which suffered, along with Roosevelt ‘s other opponents, ignominious defeat. In the years just prior to World War II he became increasingly isolationist and anti-Communist in his pronouncements. He was against military aid to Russia, and he opposed the entry of the United States into the war; his radio audience dwindled, and after Pearl Harbor the unabated hostility of his newspaper toward the war effort led to its
suppression by the U.S. Department of Justice. Coughlin continued as a parish priest until he retired from the Shrine in ig66. Today, at eighty-one, he leads a quiet but active life in the comfortably sprawling, one-story home he designed and built for himself (“My third m two years, ” he proudly explains. “I’m a good builder. If I hadn’t become a priest, I think I would have enjoyed being a carpenter”). It is in Birmingham, a few miles from the Shrine of the Little Flower, where he is listed as pastor emeritus. His daily routine is relaxed but fixed. He washes his car, attends his geraniums, and works at occasional books—theologically oriented volumes that he publishes and distributes through his own mailing list. His private chapel, m which he celebrates the Mass every morning ("Ifind that I say Mass now more fervently, with more devotion"), is situated between his spacious bedroom and a small study, where he displays alabaster busts of popes Leo XIIi and Pius xi flanking a silver-framed photograph of his favorite bishop and personal mentor, the late Michael J. Gallagher. He no longer makes many public appearances. He avoids the press and rigorously shuns any more controversial exposure. For the past three decades he has refrained from discussing his own version of his tumultuous public career until recently he consented to talk for the historical record with A MERICAN H ERITAGE .
Not many men—certainly few priests in this country—have managed such turbulent careers as yours. Looking back, can you explain this?
I was the world’s greatest oddity as a clergyman—back in 1926, especially. Most Catholics at that time believed that a priest had no business in politics. He shouldn’t mention anything dealing with taxation or pollution or war, you know. That’s a silly notion. After all, Christ excoriated the tax gatherers and cleansed the temple of the money changers who were debasing the currency then.
And you felt that a priest had a right to get involved? A right?
The clergy had a duty to do it, not a right, a duty, even at the expense of life. You see, man is composed of both body and soul, and you have to take care of the total man if you’re going to be a priest. Now today the tendency is to take care of the total body, and to hell with the soul. Before my time, everything was total soul. But I couldn’t, I wouldn’t have done what I did if I hadn’t had the support of my dear friend Michael GaIlagher, the bishop of Detroit. Bishop Gallagher believed as I believed, and Pope Leo xin believed before him, and especially Pope Pius xi. Pius xi and Michael Gallagher and Joe Schrcmbs, he was the bishop of Cleveland, they were closest friends.
You felt, then, that you had the backing of the Church? OJ the pope himself?