A superb biography of a complex priest and exceptional historian

A review of the late Monsignor Thomas J. Shelley’s biography John Tracy Ellis: An American Catholic Reformer, published by Catholic University of America Press.

Historian and priest Fr. John Tracy Ellis (1905-1992) (Image: CUA Press)

It’s always interesting when an historian puts his pen to telling us about another historian. And the current effort is no exception.

First off, however, let’s get some unpleasant material out of the way. The book is riddled with typographical errors: misspelled words; missing words; repetitions of whole phrases. This is shocking, to say the least, for any academic press. I am particularly stunned because I have been singularly impressed by the products of the CUA Press over the years. My only supposition for this series of gross oversights is that Monsignor Shelley died last year, perhaps without being able to give a last look-over of the text. That said, that is certainly no excuse for the editorial team’s failure to take the final stages in hand for themselves.

John Tracey Ellis’s life spanned most of the twentieth century (1937-1992), born in the American Heartland. He was, to say the least, a very complex person: brilliant, critical in the extreme, professional. Already in seventh grade, his penchant for hyper-criticism surfaced as he declared that Sister Amata was inadequate as a teacher, convincing his parents to transfer him to the local public school, where he likewise deemed the teachers sub-par (13). For high school and the first two years of college, he attended St. Viator College in Peoria (where his fellow alumnus was none other than Fulton J. Sheen); again, he found the institution wanting. Moving on to The Catholic University of America, he was similarly unimpressed. As a student or professor, he leveled his severe judgments on many other colleges. Must one conclude that every school of his acquaintance was second-rate? Or, is it more likely that Ellis was arrogant and a perpetual malcontent?

When the young Ellis finally decided that he wanted to become a priest, he approached Bishop Francis Martin Kelly of Winona about the possibility of his sponsoring him for ordination. The glitch was that Ellis had some pre-conditions, namely, that following ordination, he wanted to continue teaching at Catholic University–in perpetuum. The Bishop, very pointedly asked, “If I understand you correctly, Mr. Ellis, you wish to use the Diocese of Winona as a means to your end.” To which, Ellis replied–in total honesty–“Yes, Bishop, that is true.” The Bishop continued, “Would you be able to pay your expenses through the seminary?” “Yes,” came the swift reply. “Well, I do not see any difficulty in that arrangement,” responded the Ordinary. And, as they say, the rest is history; Ellis served only one summer as a parish priest, and that, not even in the Diocese of Winona but in Chicago!

I must say that I admire the genuine ecclesial sense of Kelly, who was willing to see beyond the borders of his diocese to the good of the Church beyond–an attitude in very short supply in the Church of today. Interestingly, the young Father Fulton Sheen experienced the same type of openness from the Bishop of Peoria, where Sheen served only one year in the diocese of his incardination.

Bishop Kelly offered Ellis the opportunity to study in Rome, which invitation Ellis rejected because he wanted to remain in Washington to study at the Sulpician Seminary (now, Theological College), so that he could–presumably–continue teaching at Catholic University as a seminarian. Amazingly, that arrangement was also ratified. To be sure, such a situation would never have been countenanced in any seminary in the Universal Church over the past sixty or more years. Not surprisingly, Ellis again complained about the academics, perhaps solidifying his reputation as a perpetual malcontent.

Bishop Kelly ordained Ellis in 1938, after which he continued his teaching at Catholic University, where he was a very successful and popular professor of history. Very generously, the equally young Sheen invited Ellis to live with him and several other priest-professors, which invitation Ellis accepted. Will we be surprised to learn that, in short order, demonstrating no small degree of ingratitude, Ellis found Sheen’s vanity insufferable? Was a former professor of mine right to assert: “You always see first in others what you see first in yourself”? To Ellis’ credit, he did render an overall favorable assessment of Sheen in time.

In addition to Ellis’ successful tenure as a history professor, he likewise embarked on an equally successful career as an author, also rising through the ranks of American ecclesiastical historians, eventually assuming the mantle of editor of the prestigious Catholic Historical Review after the retirement of his supportive and gracious mentor, Father Peter Guilday. At Guilday’s death, sadly, Ellis could pen this remark: “I had a genuine affection for the man who had introduced me and so many others to graduate studies in history, conscious as I was of his faults and vagaries among which was the uncertainty that was often left concerning where one stood with him” (57). Thankfully, that “tribute” was never published. His public tribute to his mentor was far more generous.

The effort for which Ellis became most famous was a talk that morphed into an article and then a monograph: “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” delivered on May 5, 1955. It was a pointed indictment of Catholic intellectual life–or better, the lack thereof. Very astutely, he asserted that the proliferation of colleges, started by every other religious congregation was a major mistake since the quality of instruction could not be assured and that all of these institutions, collectively, were in competition with each other. Much better, in his judgment, would have been a handful of Catholic colleges, strategically located. With his characteristic wit, he observed: “There are American Catholic colleges in places where the students, if any, would have to seek out their Alma Mater on a pack mule” (84). One would not have to guess his opinion on a school like Wyoming Catholic College, deliberately planted in such an environment! Ellis’ critique of the unsustainable multiplication of colleges would apply presently to the number of seminaries, most of which are three-quarters empty, some of which have more professors than students. Even in his own time, he complained about “the mindless proliferation of seminaries” (161).

He also believed that the intellectual level of American Catholicism was so low due to the lack of support for it from the hierarchy, hitting a real nerve. The vast majority of American bishops–in the current moment–have little to no cultural formation and, if they possess a graduate degree, it is most likely in canon law. Some years ago, a young priest of my acquaintance, embarking on biblical studies, sought his Ordinary’s permission to take a summer course in Ugaritic. The bishop couldn’t fathom why he would be interested in that language since “we don’t have any parish where Ugaritic is spoken!” Another bishop told me he thoroughly enjoyed classical music, having been a faithful devotee of Lawrence Welk for years. On the other hand, in a country like Poland one finds bishops of great culture and learning, with advanced studies in a broad swath of disciplines.

Perhaps Monsignor Ellis’ greatest impact at the practical level of Catholic living was his two-volume Documents of American Catholic History. I say that because it was the text for my own seminary course in the history of the Church in the United States, and still is used today. I say “practical” because of the influence it had/has on generations of priests, who were thus treated to an in-depth presentation of Catholic life in America from primary sources. Given the fact that Americans are notoriously weak in history, Ellis’ herculean effort has ensured that thousands of priests have been spared that regrettable lacuna. After all, as the great Roman orator and philosopher, Cicero, warned millennia ago, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” And even more to the point: “History is truly the witness of times past, the light of truth, the life of memory, the teacher of life, the messenger of antiquity.” Indeed, so many of our contemporary problems in the Church can be laid at the doorstep of an ignorance of her history.

Ellis eschewed history as hagiography, for which he was often criticized by not a few prelates who viewed his honesty as scandalous. In this regard, he could be counted a worthy son of Caesar Baronius (an early disciple of St. Philip Neri), often dubbed the “father of modern church history.” Baronius’ approach to history has been described in these terms: “indefatigable diligence in research, passion for verification, accuracy of judgment, and unswerving loyalty to truth.”

The Monsignor also became known for his fraternal (or better, paternal) charity toward young clergy seeking his guidance. As a very young priest, I had the pleasure of being a guest for an elegant luncheon in his apartment at Catholic University and, a couple of years later, having him as a supporter of mine when Fordham University was engaging in some nasty anti-clerical and obstructionist behavior in my regard in the lead-up to my doctoral dissertation.

With the passage of time, the venerable historian seems to have tilted progressively to the left–or maybe he just felt more comfortable in revealing his instincts:

• In 1968, he publicly favored CUA’s having its first lay president.

• Although he had reservations about Charles Curran’s positions on sexual morality, he took his stance in his behalf on the grounds of “academic freedom,” as he had done some years earlier with Hans Küng. Although absent from CUA at the height of the Curran drama, he went so far as to declare: “I sincerely hope the faculty and students stand their ground and make it a perfect boycott that will force the trustees to withdraw their vote of compliance with the rector’s action.” And a bit later: “I glory in the students and professors while hanging my head in shame at the administrators and real governors of my alma mater. It is literally a national scandal now.” Imagine–a scandal that a professor of Catholic theology would be expected to teach Catholic theology! And so, it should come as no surprise that the drafters of the infamous “Land o’ Lakes Declaration” a year later felt comfortable in claiming Ellis as an inspiration for its “declaration of independence” from ecclesiastical control, thus leading the vast majority of Catholic colleges since to be barely recognizable as such. Strangely, one looks in vain in Shelley’s work for one word about this disastrous “declaration,” for which his subject provided much grist for the mill.

• Upon the arrival of the seriously problematic Archbishop Jean Jadot as our apostolic delegate in 1973, Ellis waded deeply into the waters of ecclesiastical politics and became his “warm admirer” (153). A decade after Jadot’s removal by Pope John Paul II, we are told by Shelley that Jadot “made no secret of his unhappiness with the priorities of the pontificate of John Paul II,” and in fact, “deplored” it. Shelley tells us that “Ellis shared Jadot’s ambivalence about John Paul” (154).

• He befriended two of the leading lay liberals in the country–Daniel Callahan and Michael Novak. Interestingly, Callahan ended up leaving the Church, while Novak made a hard turn to the right. As Ellis grew increasingly more liberal, he lost the friendships of some of his closest priest-friends, including the indomitable Monsignor George Kelly of New York. Shelley refers to his fellow-New Yorker as a “self-appointed heresy-hunter,” whose writing “rarely rose above the level of tabloid journalism” (151). Somewhat amusingly, however, Shelley notes that “Kelly also took perverse delight in suggesting to Ellis that he [Ellis] was basically a conservative who liked to masquerade as a liberal.” Shelley answers the question whether Ellis was “liberal or conservative” by observing that Ellis “did not like to be identified with either camp. . . . However, he did admit that he found the liberals of his day more to his liking than the conservatives” (177-178).

• Ellis favored optional celibacy and hoped that John Paul’s moratorium on laicizations would not be permanent; his hope was not well-founded.

All of that said, he would have been a vigorous opponent of the contemporary “cancel culture.” In 1966, he chastised a colleague thus: “Are you not committing the common fault of reading the standards of the 1960s into those of the 1880s in expecting those churchmen to have shown themselves as deep and convinced liberals when nothing in their background would suggest preparation for such a point of view?” (122)

His assessment of the hierarchy was often scathingly accurate, excoriating the majority of bishops for their failure “to be open and honest” (159).

As defections from the priestly ministry multiplied, Ellis attributed the phenomenon “to the inadequate spiritual formation they had received as seminarians” (159). Although many “traditionalists” are loath to admit that today, it is an inescapable conclusion from any objective criteria. In 1970, he penned an devastating denunciation of priestly formation in the prestigious American Ecclesiastical Review. His reflections on “the infantilizing atmosphere” of the seminary are worth quoting in some detail:

. . . the system under which virtually all of us were trained allowed precious little opportunity to depend on oneself. An attitude was inculcated in us as seminarians which militated against initiative and innovation, for we were repeatedly admonished not to be “singular”. And our avoidance of singularity meant that in most cases we were not to be ourselves, we were not to think for ourselves, we were not to show a spirit of self-reliance and independence. . . There were far too many in their ranks who were grown-up boys, not men in any real meaning of the term.

And more: “Thus, were the inner resources of many a talented seminarian not only not allowed to be developed, they were in fact killed for life,” causing such a dearth of leadership among the clerical caste, especially among bishops (160). He found the process of episcopal selection very troubling, especially since it was (and still is) so shrouded in secrecy. In point of fact, he favored the system used in this country between 1885 and 1916, namely, a quasi-election by priests (with confirmation by the Holy See).

Sad to say, nothing much in priestly formation has changed up to the present moment. Interestingly, I produced an article five years after Ellis in Priest magazine, making many of the same points about the seminary experience, which led to my dismissal within three months! Perhaps not surprisingly, the future rector of the North American College in Rome, Monsignor Harold Darcy, and Ellis became fast friends; it was Darcy who was responsible for my dismissal (although he himself had a rather inglorious end).

Oddly, Ellis favored the accreditation of Catholic seminaries by the less-than-Catholic-friendly Association of American Universities–another indication of his seeming self-deprecating obsession with seeking approval from secular sources.

Paul VI’s promulgation of Humanae Vitae in 1968 was a defining moment for Ellis. As already mentioned, he sided with the dissenting theologians (presumably on the grounds of academic freedom). However, there was more to his thinking on the document which, he said, “had done serious injury to his own [the Pope’s] authority by issuing the encyclical.” Even more, he asserted: “I honestly cannot bring myself to believe that Catholics who practice birth control for good reasons. . . are sinning gravely.” In a 1979 lecture at Theological College in Washington, Ellis referred to Catholics and birth control as “a non-question.” He went on: “I hope I won’t shock you,” he told the seminarians, “when I say this: I think the show’s all over” (207). Finally, Shelley informs us, Ellis predicted that fifty years on, “historians would be comparing it [the encyclical] to the notorious Syllabus of Errors issued by Pius IX in 1864.” Well, fifty-five years on, we find that the teaching of Humanae Vitae is still in place, endorsed even by Pope Francis!

By the time of Ellis’ death in 1992, he had amassed dozens of honorary doctorates from Catholic colleges–ironically–many of which he would not have wanted to have been opened in the first place according to his oft-stated criteria! The elder churchman always claimed Cardinal John Henry Newman as his “spiritual master, as stylist, and also as historian” (208). Newman, however, never dissented from Church teaching and certainly never encouraged it.

As I indicated at the outset, Monsignor Shelley was an excellent historian in his own right, however, his purple prose and ideological jargon get in the way of so much: frequent recourse to the theologically problematic expression, “American Church”; “retrograde” and “reactionary” as epithets for those with whom he disagreed; “apparatchiks of the Roman Curia”; “hoary teaching” for traditional doctrine

Seminarians exposed to his teaching were unanimous in their acclaim of Shelley as a superb historian but were often turned off by his ideology and cantankerous personality, which clearly come through in his writing as well. All that said, this work is well written and provides valuable insights into the man who was the dean of American ecclesiastical history for the better part of a century.

John Tracey Ellis: An American Catholic Reformer
By Thomas J. Shelley
Catholic University of America Press, 2023
Hardcover, 204 pages

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 274 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.


  1. #1. The enumeration of Ellis’ views more than adequately convinced me once again that liberals have one major character flaw- they are elitists to the core.
    #2. This piece clearly depicts Ellis’ view of the priesthood in ideology, as well as in practice. His view smacks of a clericalism that any accused traditionalist would have difficulty matching. I was struck by the quoted words of Ellis: “An attitude was inculcated in us as seminarians which militated against initiative and innovation, for we were repeatedly admonished not to be “singular”. And our avoidance of singularity meant that in most cases we were not to be ourselves, we were not to think for ourselves, we were not to show a spirit of self-reliance and independence…” I always thought that we were, as Christians, to die to self in order that we might take on Christ. I had a friend when growing up in Brooklyn who was unpolished in many regards and given to come up with expressions that rivaled those of the inimitable Yogi Berra. Once, in reference to another comrade’s unmerited lofty self-assessment, my friend commented: “He thinks who the hell he is.” His inelegant expression conveyed his notion aptly. It seems the same could have been said about Ellis.

  2. Please note that Msgr. Ellis’s life in the 20th century spanned between 1905 and 1992, not 1937 and 1992 as stated in the article. Perhaps Father Stravinskas is referring to his professional life?

  3. We read: “…Ellis predicted that fifty years on, ‘historians would be comparing it [the encyclical] to the notorious Syllabus of Errors issued by Pius IX in 1864.’ Well, fifty-five years on, we find that the teaching of Humanae Vitae is still in place, endorsed even by Pope Francis!”

    Four Points:

    FIRST, as for Pope Francis, as we look into the future rather than (Ellis’s) history, what do we see? Does the current pope seem to double-speak: both affirming “traditional” truths AND enabling Progressivism—often employing even the same ideological epithets as Ellis (“American Church,” “retrograde” and “reactionary”)?

    Earlier, and facing the same future, St. John Paul II produced his encyclical “Centesimus Annus (CA, 1991)”—which was framed differently. ALL of the Catholic Social Teaching (CST) rather than Laudato Si’s (LS, 2015) also legitimate focus on our Common Home. After one century, in 1991, the focus was on the new post-Cold War world following the disintegration of the Soviet Empire. For a non-bipolar world, CA carried forward all of the CST (by first recalling Rerum Novarum, 1891)—rather than zeroing in on only one layer of CST’s morally grounded cosmos (“care for God’s creation”). CA also, therefore, retained a clear distinction between the fate of our distinct “human ecology” and the fate of our interrelated “natural ecology.” (Not the useful but also conflated and problematic “integral ecology” of Laudato Si…)

    SECOND, in his personal writings (not on Church letterhead), “Memory and Identity,” St. John Paul II celebrated the memory of national solidarity, but also introduced the less conflated and still useful concept of “non-exclusive solidarity.” Might we see a direct and instructive and scale-independent parallel to the combined unity of mother and child, and between national identity and our Common Home’s global amniotic sac? A non-abortive solidarity with a direct application to living together inter-personally and internationally, fully recognizing and valuing both our future and our past (no “backwardist” epithets?): “a dialogue which involves past and future generations” (CA, n. 49).

    THIRD, so what of the perennial and remembering–one, holy, catholic, apostolic–Church, grounded within the historical/vertical Incarnation [!], and which does not conflate the magisterium with horizontally “walking together” as with a hermeneutically contradictory (?) and appropriated Holy Spirit?

    How to render coherent and simply the entire Catholic Social Teaching? Within global solidarity, now also explicitly [!] including the Natural Law and moral absolutes—the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor,” nn. 95, 115)?

    Might we say that “…the Church’s social principles [the negation of ideology] are applications of the moral virtues—justice and prudential judgment, temperance and courage. It is courage […] that enables us to see that each concrete and transcendent human PERSON is not a thing; that the FAMILY is not an arbitrary legal fiction […]; that SOLIDARITY means human relationships are real but not exclusive; that SUBSIDIARITY means the state […] is not the sum total of human community; that human WORK and the human worker are not commodities; that the POOR of all kinds are not refuse; and [yes, with Laudato Si’s focus] that CREATION is a wonder which before it is found useful is given in the service of all” (Beaulieu, “Beyond Secularism and Jihad: A Triangular Inquiry into the Mosque, the Manger & Modernity,” 2012, from Chapter 4: “The Manger–The Human Person in the World”).

    Regarding the history of the future, if a grounded and distilled CST is the answer, then how better to frame the question? Better than, say, possibly a blurred and non-Christocentric synodism in the hands of “facilitator” administrators?

    • Apostasy from God’s Truth is not an endorsement of God’s Truth.

      “If there is a union of a private nature, there is neither a third party, nor is society affected.“-Jorge Bergoglio

      Sin done in private is still sin, and God, The persons involved in the sin, and society are all affected.

      From The Catechism Of The Catholic Church:
      “1849 Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.”121

  4. I enjoy history, although based on what I read here I cannot admire Ellis. I had to laugh when reading, “Ellis found Sheen’s vanity insufferable.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

    Ellis’s backing of those who rejected Humana Vitae is regrettable to say the least. He comes across as an arrogant academic with a roman collar, not as a priest.

  5. Very helpful article about one, actually two including Shelley, whose attitudes and mindset are in part responsible for our current mess.

  6. Ellis may have been a great historian, but as a priest he seems to be lacking in some of the fundamental attributes a priest should exhibit, such as humility, kindness, and a desire for the salvation of souls. He reminds me of a priest who often said to he congregation, “Don’t bother coming to me for confession unless you know you committed a mortal sin.” And as an aside, if he was born in 1937, how was he ordained in 1938?

  7. The review unfortunately contains a major typo. (And a glaring one – while 55 years would be correctly most in the sense of >50%, it would not connote the century-spanning life that Fr. Stravinskas wants to indicate, whereas his real dates would.)

    • Yes. I thank the author for the warning about the book’s typos, but the review itself has some boners. Pet peeve: mixing up “convince” and “persuade.” Somehow people get it wrong over 50% of the time. Hold the line! 🤣

  8. Sounds like he was a better historian, academic, and observer of the hierarchy than he was a priest.
    Perhaps that’s overbroad, in which case, I apologize.

  9. “Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am? “

    “16Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.”

    To the unfaithful, those who have not yet converted to The Word Of God Incarnate, Jesus The Christ, “Academic Freedom”, includes the freedom to question The Wisdom Of God, while The Faithful, having already been converted, seek first , The Kingdom Of God, and thus will not allow for their hearts to become hardened because they know in their hearts that “Faith, unfaithful “, will keep one “falsely true”.

    “And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”

    (See also Catholic Canon 750 in regards to The Deposit Of Faith.)

    An “autonomous “ Catholic is an oxymoron.

    “If you are not with Me, you are against Me.” – Jesus The Christ

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. A superb biography of a complex priest and exceptional historian – TigerFish
  2. A superb biography of a complex priest and exceptional historian – Via Nova

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