When John P. Cody was appointed archbishop of Chicago by Pope Paul VI in 1965, he arrived “with accolades from many church people as an . . . ardent defender of racial integration,” according to a news account.
But Cody wasn’t entirely comfortable with the civil rights movement, according to a file that was kept on the now-deceased cleric by the FBI and obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
The document is included in “The FBI Files,” the Sun-Times’ new database of agency records on people and events of particular Chicago interest and importance.
The documents in the online portal shed light on the federal agency’s historical interest not just in mobsters and crooked politicians but also influential Catholic leaders.
Cody’s file includes a memo written by one FBI official to another describing Cody’s remarks to him during a private meeting in Chicago in 1966, the year before he was elevated to cardinal.
Cody told the FBI man that he was “gravely concerned over the racial situation in Chicago” and “having problems with many of his younger priests who become over zealous in some of their endeavors in the civil rights field,” according to the memo.
“He told me that this presents a problem for him in giving them guidance in such a way that they use good judgment in their endeavors but not accuse His Excellency of being anti-civil rights,” the memo said.
Cody also told an FBI official “he was worried about the presence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago” and had met him and was “not impressed,” the FBI records show.
“He felt King was not a truthful man,” the memo said, citing a meeting between Cody and King that the cardinal said was supposed to be a private chat but which King briefed reporters about.
“His Excellency [Cody] is a very forceful individual, and from his comments and demeanor, I feel certain that he will do everything possible to neutralize King’s effect in this area,” an FBI official wrote.
In 1976, a U.S. Senate committee report said the FBI had tried to enlist Cody and New York’s archbishop to discredit King, peddling information about his “private life” and “alleged communist influence on Dr. King,” records show.
Not contained in Cody’s FBI file was any obvious reference to a federal investigation into possible financial misconduct involving church funds. Cody died in 1982 as the probe was active. No charges were filed.
The FBI kept a file on another Catholic bishop, Fulton Sheen, who was from Illinois and was well known in the Cold War era as an evangelizer and anti-communist.
He maintained a close relationship and frequent correspondence with longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In one letter in Sheen’s file, he told Hoover, “You have built up a tradition toward divine justice in this country which has been incomparable in the life of free peoples.”
A week later, Hoover wrote back, saying, “I want you to know that any success my associates and I may have attained can be attributed to a great extent to the staunch support of good friends such as you.”
Also in Sheen’s file was a very personal biography on the prelate, dated 1953.
“The Bishop has little or no social life. He eats usually in twenty to twenty five minutes. He tries to save morning hours for creative work, sees callers in the afternoon, and in the evenings does reading and research . . . He became famous for the conversion to Catholicism of famous people, including Clare Boothe Luce, Ambassador to Italy; and Henry Ford, II; also converted Louis Budenz, former Editor-in-Chief of the Communist ‘Daily Worker.’ . . . The Bishop likes chocolate ice cream and angel-food cake.”
“He also likes to roam about the kitchen in the homes of friends when he is visiting. He likes to play tennis and always dressed the part, with white scarf and white flannel trousers, and was a fashion plate on the court even though his game was not always up to par . . . The Bishop was one of the outspoken prominent Americans who, in his lectures and on the radio, opposed both Nazism and Communism back in the 1930s. He is very human and very humble.”
Bernard Sheil, a longtime Catholic bishop in Chicago who railed against the anti-communist witch hunt of U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s, was mentioned briefly in another FBI file that noted agents wanted to interview Sheil about the “allegation that he was supporting” the parole efforts of Chicago mobster Charles Gioe.
The FBI records note there’s no evidence that Sheil, who died in 1969, “participated in securing the parole” of Gioe or any of his criminal cohorts.
The FBI also maintained a file on Cardinal Francis George, who died in 2015. It involved disturbing “hate mail” he received.