Joseph S. Rossi, S.J., Uncharted Territory: The American Catholic Church at the United Nations, 1946-1972. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2006.

Reviewed by John F.Quinn
Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island

In Uncharted Territory, Fr. Joseph Rossi sheds much new light on postwar American Catholicism. A professor of theology at Loyola College Baltimore, Rossi is an authority on Catholics and the United Nations(UN). This book is a follow up to his earlier book, American Catholics and the Formation of the United Nations (1993).

Rossi notes that the American hierarchy was very eager to support the UN. The bishops saw the UN as a critical component of Pope Pius XII’s peace plan. In his addresses during World War II, the pope had repeatedly called for the establishment of an international body to replace the failed League of Nations.

In 1946, the bishops set up a UN Office in New York City to keep them apprised of the latest developments at the UN. They appointed Catherine Schaefer, a staffer from their Washington headquarters, to direct the office and act as their observer. Although little known now, Schaefer was an influential figure at the UN who maintained close relations with Catholic delegates from all over the world.

Schaefer was a whirlwind of activity. In addition to maintaining close contact with the bishops, she actively used her influence at the UN to promote Catholic principles. In 1947 as Eleanor Roosevelt and the other members of the UN Commission on Human Rights worked on their Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Schaefer did all she could to circulate the US bishops’ Declaration of Rights. The bishops’ statement affirmed that man is made in the “image of God” and has the “right to life from the moment of conception.” (265) While the Commissioners were unwilling to allude in any way to God and refused to condemn abortion, Schaefer and her allies did succeed in blocking the Soviet proposal that the Declaration affirm a right to divorce.

In the years following, Schaefer often found herself working furiously against the Soviets. In 1950 she sent a report to the bishops outlining “Communist Russia’s drive to subjugate the world and the free peoples of the world.” (148) Schaefer was angry that the Soviets had a veto over the Security Council’s proceedings and was convinced that the Soviets and their allies were succeeding in moving the UN in a secularist and materialist direction.

When working on women’s issues, Schaefer again found herself at loggerheads with the Communists. While in favor of expanded voting rights for women and equal pay for equal work, she vigorously objected when Communist delegates pressed the UN Commission on the Status of Women to call for more day care centers around the world. She declared that daycare centers were inappropriate for children under three and feared that the proliferation of these institutions would put undue pressure on mothers to work. On this point, Schaefer had some success. The Commissioners decided that they would need considerably more data before they could endorse daycare centers.

By the late 1960s, Schaefer faced opposition from an unexpected quarter: younger bishops such as Joseph Bernardin saw no further need for a UN Office and felt that the bishops should devote their limited resources strictly to domestic concerns. Furthermore, since Pope Paul VI had expanded the Vatican presence at the UN in 1965, Bernardin and his allies could argue that the UN Office was duplicating the efforts of the Vatican observer. Schaefer had some stalwart defenders among the bishops so a stalemate of sorts ensued until 1972 when Bernardin at last prevailed.
Rossi greatly admires the work that Schaefer and her associates accomplished and he can not understand why Bernardin was so determined to eliminate their office. Indeed, one can see why Rossi would sympathize with Schaefer who was such a tireless champion of Catholic principles. Rossi should be commended for bringing attention to this significant but overlooked woman. And since Schaefer was so closely associated with the bishops, Rossi’s work also offers readers new insights into the American hierarchy’s response to the Cold War.