Conversations and conversions: The Bob Pelton interviews

Author: Peter Cajka

By Peter Cajka

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During the fall of 2017, I would regularly meet Father Bob Pelton, C.S.C., in a cramped but high-powered recording booth in Notre Dame’s Corbett Family Hall. I had done my homework: I read his biography, talked with his friends, sifted through some of his papers, and even read a few of Bob’s books. I sharpened and honed the questions I wanted to ask. Considering multiple approaches, I finally settled on using each interview to explore a particular phase of Bob’s life from his perspective at age 96. We began with his time as an undergraduate and novitiate at Notre Dame, moved to his graduate education in Rome and time as chair of the Theology Department, followed his career to Chile, and finally we talked about his human rights work. He shared his visions, breakthroughs, and frustrations. He lit up when he talked about old friends and his hopes for the future of the Church.

Father Pelton seems to have packed multiple lives into nine and a half decades. He turned down a scholarship to swim at Stanford in 1939 to attend Notre Dame because he felt a calling to the priesthood. He excelled as a student at Notre Dame and later in his doctoral studies at the prestigious Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome, also known as the Angelicum. Hired for a tenure track professorship in 1953 to teach religion at Notre Dame, Bob played a key role in transforming his department into a prestigious academic operation. Cardinal Leo Suenens of Belgium invited Pelton to serve as his theological expert at the Second Vatican Council. In 1964, just before he arrived in Rome, Bob’s superior asked him to go to Santiago to serve as the rector of Saint George’s College, an elite school for the sons of Chilean bankers, lawyers, and government officials. While in Chile, Bob helped create and sustain a network of Catholic intellectuals and activists stretching from South Bend to Santiago. After returning to Notre Dame in the mid-1970s, he founded Latin American/North American Church Concerns (LANACC) in 1985, inaugurated the Romero Days (annual commemorations of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero), and worked at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies. These were efforts in Bob’s “reverse mission” to convert North American Catholics to a deeper faith with fresh sources from Latin America.

Journalists and historians have already begun to tell Bob’s story, but much work remains to be done. Robert Ball’s biography of Pelton, The Future of Our Past, and journalist Tara Hunt McMullen’s article on Bob’s human rights activism, “Truth to Power,” (Notre Dame Magazine, spring 2017) represent important first steps. For me—his interviewer over the course of four months—Pelton is best understood as having experienced several conversions over the course of one lifetime. Each of his conversions—at the Council, in Santiago, in the face of General Augusto Pinochet’s violence—deepened and remade his love of Christ and his Church. Ultimately, Bob has come to see Catholicism as a source for a meaningful communal life and as calling the faithful to denounce political injustice.

Pelton 2

I should be clear about the sources used to craft the narrative that follows. All sources have their limits and transcribed interview notes are no exception. Memory—narrating life at age 96 in response to a researcher’s questions—is not the same as history. The historian’s craft entails the discovery and analysis of primary source documents in an effort to interpret the past. Bob conjured memories and explained his ideas in response to my questions. The transcribed interviews capture Bob’s self-identity in 2017 and his own life narrative. My interviews should help us to study Bob and his ideas, but they are only an initial point of departure.

All converts leave behind a former life: Paul walked away from his persecution of early Christians and John Henry Newman broke from Anglicanism. Bob—in his own memory—put an “institutional” understanding of Catholicism in his rearview mirror. Importantly, the interviews show that Bob’s conversion to politically active Catholicism did not appear out of nowhere. New ideas in the 1940s and 1950s—particularly a historical understanding of Scripture and early Catholic Action organizations—laid the groundwork for his initial conversion. It was two simultaneous events in the mid-1960s, though, that made his move away from the institutional church particularly dramatic: the Second Vatican Council and his arrival in Santiago. He would convert again in the early 1970s—to a politically charged Catholicism—in response to Pinochet’s bloody reign of terror in 1973. Our most pressing task, he told me time and again, is to make Christianity a social and political “reality.”


The institutional church

Bob entered “the institutional church” when he arrived at Notre Dame in 1939 for his freshmen year. Growing up in Evanston, Illinois, in a town full of Methodists, Bob attended Catholic Mass and participated in parish life, but his arrival in South Bend marked the beginning of deeper relationships in and with the Catholic Church. Pelton stresses how unimpressive he found Notre Dame in the late 1930s. He calls it “a very small French-style boarding school” and observes that his public high school was larger than the university he had chosen to attend.

Pelton 3Undergraduate Bob Pelton, c. 1940

Bob entered a Catholic university system that had been building intellectual fortresses for almost half a century. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholics had come to believe that religious institutions like parishes and schools provided the best means to keep their people safe from the secularizing currents of modernity. These institutions protected Catholic ideas and rituals from external threats. Importantly, institutions of higher learning like Notre Dame served as spaces to preserve Catholic traditions in the face of modernity’s turns toward materialism, relativity, psychoanalysis, and Darwinian evolution. Bob now remembers the institutional church as a cumbersome set of arrangements that weakened the social and political witness of Catholicism. He admits that institutions are necessary for proclaiming the Gospel and forming community, but he worries that following the institution’s line too closely will separate Catholicism from reality. Bob memorized doctrines as a college student and a novice, but the faith never entered what he now calls “the gut level.” The institutional church trained Catholics to possess a “religion of the head” rather than a “faith of the heart.”  

Notre Dame might have been a small operation in 1939 but enrollment at Catholic colleges had been rising steadily since the end of World War I. In fact, over the course of the 20th century, due to external political factors, American Catholics built the largest network of private religious schools—primary, secondary, university—in the modern world. Bob made his way into the Catholic institutional system just before universities and seminaries entered a period of dramatic growth. Between 1945 and 1965, enrollment at Catholic colleges rose by 300 percent, climbing from 92,426 to 384,526. The population of seminary students grew by a staggering 127 percent over the same 20-year period.

The phrase “institutional church” connotes more than scale or numbers—it also involves a series of habits. The institutional church and its many routines formed the mind and body of young Bob Pelton along very well defined lines. The universities of the institutional church provided thorough supervision of students; their curriculums emphasized the memorization of Church doctrines; and administrators encouraged regular Mass attendance. Bob insists that the university did not force students to attend Mass, but he makes clear that the university at that time understood itself as working in loco parentis (“in the place of the parent”). At Notre Dame in the 1940s, teachers and priests took on the role of the parents, organizing student life and meting out discipline. Students had to wake at 6:00 a.m. and be in bed by 10:00 p.m. As an undergraduate, Bob, along with 200 other students, attended a supervised study session at Brownson Hall each night of the week. His religion classes, taught by priests, consisted of memorizing the teachings found in the catechism. Bob is still amazed, looking back on his student years, that the Church assumed that priests could teach religion simply by virtue of being priests. 

Pelton in the 1960sFather Pelton in the 1960s with students of Saint George’s College

The institutional church defined the early years of Bob’s vocation. Upon becoming a candidate for the priesthood in 1941, he undertook a stringent regime of prayer and manual labor during his novitiate year. Pelton’s biographer, Robert Ball, detailed his life as a novice. Bob and his fellow candidates awoke each morning at 5:00 a.m. for breakfast and meditation, followed by Mass and several hours of physical labor. Looking back on these early years, Pelton thinks of the Holy Cross novitiate as a “disaster.” Priestly training in the mid-century institutional church aimed to produce individuals rather than communities. “The mentality for it was that we’re going to train you to be prayerful people, but isolated, rather than related,” he says. After seminary training and graduate studies, Bob’s early assignment at Notre Dame manifested the ethos of mass production so common in the institutional church. With no teaching assistants, he lectured to six religion classes in one semester in 1949, each with 50 undergraduates, teaching a total of 300 students.  

A series of phrases repeated by Pelton during our first interview conveys his ambivalence toward institutionalized Catholicism. He speaks of “repetition,” “from the top-down,” “control factor,” and “regurgitation.” He stresses how the hierarchy, claiming to “have the answers,” simply relayed them to priests and laypeople. Bob’s experiences of what others have called “fortress Catholicism” provide crucial context for understanding his subsequent, ongoing conversions.


Institutionalism and activism

Conversions are often prepared for well in advance, and can come as the result of remote, profound, and seemingly incongruous origins. Our interviews reveal that Bob came into contact with new social and intellectual trends during his years as a creature of the institutional church. The institutionalized church was overbearing at times but new social movements and fresh intellectual approaches abounded in its milieu.

An engagement with the Church’s emphasis on social activism was already with Bob by the time he set foot on campus in 1939. As a high school student, Bob participated in the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), earning accolades as the best young backstroke swimmer in the Chicago area. Years spent as a competitive swimmer thus helped him embody the spirit of Catholic activism. Importantly, Bob approached both the CYO and Notre Dame from a unique angle: he was a product of public schools. As a result of his upbringing in Illinois’ nonsectarian schools, the catechesis of the institutional church was relatively new to him.

The American Catholic Church had a split personality in the mid-20th century as both tightly institutional and socially energetic. Historian James O’Toole has called this the “Church of Social Action” because the laity, encouraged by the clergy, participated enthusiastically in a range of Catholic organizations—from labor unions to parish reading groups to sports leagues—with the goal of shaping the nation’s public life. Bob moved toward a socially engaged Catholic faith in the 1940s and 1950s when he first learned about the Christian Family Movement (CFM) and the Catholic Worker Movement (CWM). In these groups, he encountered an inductive, experience-driven approach to the faith. Both the CFM and the CWM began to argue that authentic Christianity broke into the world fundamentally in concrete situations. Faith was revealed through contact with others, particularly the poor, in the real world. Bob says he learned from these organizations that “you have to look at your own reality and then start to make judgments, and if you happen to be Christian you’ll put that into your Christian tradition.” These two organizations had an important impact on Bob’s formation as a social Christian because they taught him that “you don’t have your answers from the beginning and that would be contradictory in a highly institutional situation.” Christianity manifested itself in its encounter with social reality.

Relationships with mentors nudged Bob toward a new understanding of his faith. He learned to take Catholicism into the world from Holy Cross priest Louis Putz. Father Putz organized a wide range of Catholic social action organizations in the United States, including the Young Christian Students, a group modeled on radical Catholic European labor unions. The group identified injustices in the local community and addressed them through collaborative initiatives. In this way, the group prototyped the process of “See, Judge, Act” that became so common among liberation theologians in the 1960s. Putz founded a chapter of the group at Notre Dame in the 1940s and Bob Pelton appeared among the charter members. Bob says that new ideas for Catholic life, even in the midst of the thorough routinization of the institution, “slipped in through individuals like Louis Putz.”

New ideas encountered at midcentury were preparing Bob intellectually for the religious revolution that was to come later. He studied at Holy Cross College, in Washington D.C., from 1945 to 1949 and he worked on a doctorate in theology at the Angelicum from 1950 to 1952. A professor at Holy Cross taught him to study Scripture “in its historical, cultural context” which made for a real “breakthrough,” Bob says. Bob celebrates French Dominicans like Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange and Yves Congar who taught him to think anew about his own personal spirituality and the role of the laity in the Church.

Bob wrestled with contradictions of Catholic institutionalism and activism as a doctoral student in Rome. He spent a full year of his studies internalizing Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Bob describes the experience as “interiorizing” the text—a process deeper than memorization by repetition. Aquinas famously guides his readers to a conclusion, helping them to think that they arrived at the ideas by their own power. Thomas doesn’t just hand a student the argument. “By ‘interiorize’ I mean to understand, really, what was being presented,” Bob explains. “Making you work for it is a lot different from knowing what the conclusion is and sort of having memorized it and then just feeding it back.” Bob held on to those lessons of the Summa from the early 1950s onward. Well before he landed in Chile in 1964, then, he favored an idea of the Catholic faith as a reality reaching far deeper than formula or doctrine.

Bob also demonstrated an early affection for lay-driven social Catholicism in his 1952 dissertation, “A Thomistic Conception of the Spirituality of the Catholic University Lay Student.” The dissertation reflects the tensions that pulled midcentury Catholics in opposite directions. Bob made clear that Catholics should obey the Church’s laws as promulgated by the institutional church and its leaders. But he also encouraged the full-fledged development of a lay apostolate that manifests internal piety in external acts of charity. By more than a decade, his dissertation anticipated, in a small way, the Second Vatican Council’s emphasis on the laity.  


Converting the institution

A star student at the Angelicum, Bob returned to Notre Dame in 1953 for a professorship in the Religion Department. Over the course of the 1950s, both he and Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C. became convinced that Notre Dame’s religious education needed to move from rote memorization exercises to a forward-looking intellectual engagement with the world. Bob became chair in 1959. Under his leadership, the professors and administrators rebranded their operation, calling it the “Theology Department.” Whereas “religion” signaled a study of pre-existing transcendent norms, Bob says, “theology” conveyed a new willingness to be curious about the truth and a bravery to ask new questions about God and his Church.

As chair, Bob carried out the renovation of the Theology Department in a methodical fashion. He raised academic standards. The Department added an Honors Program. Notre Dame’s theologians pioneered a new Liturgical Studies program. Students could now earn Master’s degrees in the summer. Bob does not try to cover up the fact that all of this came at a cost. Talented laypeople replaced priests in the ranks of the university professoriate. Holy Cross priests were scrutinized by administrators, and removed from their positions when deemed ill-prepared to teach the evolving discipline of theology. The Theology Department began to hire high caliber scholars from Princeton, Yale, and Harvard.

Then, in the midst of his efforts to replace religion with theology in the curriculum, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council. The Theology Department “had to work through a lot of things,” Bob says, as Vatican II “opened the floodgates.” The energy for a full-scale revamping of the department had been building since 1959, and the Council helped Bob to implement important changes.

Vatican II had myriad consequences for the American Catholic Church, but for the Notre Dame Theology Department and Bob Pelton, one immediate aftershock is particularly important to note. In light of the Council, students at Notre Dame would be taught to read the “signs of the times” rather than deduce truth from pre-existing religious principles. For Bob, reading the signs of the times helped Catholics to apply their religious beliefs to social realities. “If you’re going to read the signs of the times,” Bob says, you will not have students simply memorizing doctrines, as “you need to find new opportunities to take advantage of what’s happened.” What had happened in the world? The world was in motion, Bob reasoned, and so the Church had to be in motion with it.


“From head to heart:” Bob Pelton and the Second Vatican Council

Pelton 6 - Card. SuenensCardinal Suenens

For Pelton, the Second Vatican Council was more than a set of documents or ideas. Bob attended the Council and imbibed its energy and sense of optimism. Cardinal Leo Suenens, a Belgian Archbishop and one of the major organizers of the Council, invited Pelton to serve as his personal theological advisor for the final session in the fall of 1965. Bob organized two seminars each week in which bishops from all over the world discussed the hottest issues at the Council, including religious freedom, modern communications, the laity, and modern politics. Bob describes these seminars as a “constant churning of ideas.” They introduced Bob to new notions of the Church being worked out by its pastors.

His time in the Eternal City also opened up his heart. Bob began to think of the Church as “pastoral.” The biweekly seminars and the inspiration of Pope John XXIII—whom Bob calls a “liberator”—pushed Bob closer to his conversion. The Council demonstrated to Bob just how cerebral the institutional church had been in the years leading up to the 1960s. The institutional church forced Catholics to learn the principles of the faith but, Pelton began to realize, an institutionalized Church could never use the faith to shape reality.

The Council galvanized a change in Bob in 1965 that he described to me as Christianity moving “from head to heart.” Bob concedes that to move from the intellectual to the emotional “you have to have a fairly good understanding [of the faith].” Catholics still depend on the institution for education and understanding. But another step is required for faith to journey, as Bob frames it, “into heart.” Real faith springs from an authentic engagement with the world. Vatican II compelled Bob to pursue what he has come to call “bridge theology.” To develop a strong theology, one in accord with reality in the world, Catholics have to cross a metaphorical bridge out of their institutions and into other cultures and the lives of the poor. Catholics have to take the Church’s theories, Bob says, and “translate that into your neighborhood, your practice, and your friends.”


Born again in Santiago

Conversions like Bob’s do not occur out of nowhere. Institutions, formal gatherings, friendships, and social organizations elicited in Bob a new desire to live a Catholicism that shaped the world around him in profound ways. But the eureka moment is still very powerful when it hits. Bob’s big bang took place after a dramatic change of scenery. He was born again in Santiago. He began to awake to a Catholicism that was socially real to him and politically engaged with the world.

It was in Chile, Bob says, that he “began to be radicalized” as it dawned on him then that “the Church really can become one that unites itself with reality rather than being separate.” When the Church enters into reality, all people, the poor especially, realize their own dignity as human persons. The realization of dignity, in turn, foments a strong desire to build community. Faith then sustains bonds between human persons beyond novenas or school lessons. The poor realize they can judge a class system that looks down upon them—and seek to change it. Bob explains that this work means “the faith really means something.” The poor sense their worth in the eyes of God.

Bob arrived in Santiago in 1964, the year before he went to Rome as Suenens’ theological advisor. He went to Chile because he had taken the “fourth vow,” the sacred pledge to travel anywhere in the world when asked to do so by a religious superior. Bob also went to Chile, though, in response to a swelling internal conviction that the teachings of the Vatican II had to be applied to “real life.”

Bob’s superior, Howard J. Kenna, C.S.C., asked Bob to become the rector of Saint George’s College, a school of the Congregation of the Holy Cross for the sons of elite Chilean Catholics. Bob’s boots had Chilean mud on them immediately after Kenna made his request. Pelton served as rector and religious superior at Saint George’s from 1964 to 1967 and from 1968 to 1972 he worked as the Episcopal Vicar of Santiago. In that position, he helped Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez to implement the teachings of Vatican II in Chile. Bob networked with hundreds of priests, sisters, and brothers all across Latin America in the years immediately following the Council.

Pelton 6 * McGrath and PeltonBishop McGrath and Father Pelton

Bob’s relocation to Latin America, like his move to a socially active Catholicism, had deep roots in the institutional church. Bob’s close friendship with Bishop Marcos McGrath, C.S.C., had kept Latin America on Bob’s mind for almost 20 years before he made the move to Chile. Bob told me that McGrath was “always promoting Latin America.” Bob suspects that his relationship with McGrath played an important part in his selection for the position at Saint George’s. Father Kenna knew that the two were as thick as thieves. Both men enrolled at Notre Dame in 1939. They endured the novitiate together in Indiana in the early 1940s. Both completed their doctorates at the Angelicum and witnessed the Council firsthand, Pelton as a theological expert and McGrath as a participant (McGrath had become an auxiliary bishop in 1961 and Pope Paul VI would appoint him Archbishop of Panama in 1969).

McGrath embodied Bob’s vision for the future of global Catholicism. Pelton describes McGrath as having had “a good sense of the Church … the type of person that turned out to be like Francis, our current Pope.” McGrath shared Pelton’s sense of the council as a pastoral and social mandate to shape reality. Pelton admired McGrath’s “sense of the base.” He credits McGrath with “reading the signs of the times” and pushing the Church to think globally. McGrath, in Bob’s eyes, understood that the Church has to be more than an institution: the Church has to empower the laity, think globally, and embrace change.

Pelton With Perquin Mural

Human rights and political Catholicism

Conversions have contexts. Bob was still in Chile in 1970 when socialist Salvador Allende was elected to the presidency. Looking back on this “Latin American kind of socialism,” Bob says it “wasn’t a rejection of a belief in God or that type of thing.” Bob and his many contacts in the Catholic world were intrigued by Allende.

But the U.S. government and the Central Intelligence Agency deemed Allende’s regime a threat to global capitalism and took concerted measures to undermine socialism in Chile. As part of this campaign, the CIA tried to convince priests and sisters to serve as their informants. Pelton refused. “I am not here to promote whatever government is in charge … nor am I here to promote the US government,” he remembers telling a CIA agent, “I am a Catholic priest here to work with the Chilean people, so cut me out.” Recruiting informants was just one move in a thick playbook. The CIA undermined Allende’s plan to give milk to the Chilean people by buying milk in bulk and dumping it in a bay. The shortage drove prices up.

When the U.S. government helped General Augusto Pinochet take power in 1973, the dictator unleashed a wave of violence to eliminate his political opponents and consolidate power. Bob had returned to Indiana in 1971 but went back to Chile in 1972 to smuggle a list of human rights violations compiled by the Committee of Cooperation for Peace (COPACHI) back to the United States, a story told by journalist Tara Hunt McMullen in the spring 2017 issue of Notre Dame Magazine. Guards interrogated Pelton as he hid the reports underneath his shirt. He came very close to death.

The COPACHI report detailed Pinochet’s abductions, murders, and mass incarcerations. The Ford Foundation published the report in multiple languages. Stories of murders and kidnappings had a profound effect on Bob. I asked him if he had thought about human rights before he made these secretive efforts to bring the COPACHI report to the United States. “I think that was a kind of conversion for me,” he says. When he learned what a political authoritarian had done to particular people—including some of his friends and the vowed religious he advised—Bob raised the banner of human rights. He had been converted yet again.

Bob began to support a much more vocal brand of political Catholicism in the 1970s—a stance he pushes to this day. He believes the Church has a duty to criticize political regimes that violate human rights. He has a deep devotion to Oscar Romero because of his convictions about public Catholic critique. Pelton produced a documentary, Monseñor: The Last Journey of Óscar Romero, which narrates Romero’s stand against the military leadership in El Salvador. The film meticulously recounts a wave of murders by government and paramilitary organizations in the late 1970s. Romero himself went to great lengths to detail the evidence of the violence and, taking a dangerous course, he denounced specific human rights violations from his pulpit in his homilies. Bob considers these stands against political injustice to be the most important work of the Church. I asked him what Notre Dame students should learn from the dictatorships in El Salvador and Chile. The Church has to stand up to violent political leaders. “Stand up to him. Say it publicly,” Pelton says. “If you don’t do it, why are you representing the Gospel?”



Pelton At Jubilee MassFather Pelton celebrates the 65th anniversary of his ordination at a Jubilee Mass in 2014.

Conversions are powerful at their inception, but often the high hopes of the converted do not translate into reality. Pelton thinks that the institutional church has yet to be converted to a robust social and political Catholicism. The message of the Gospel seems to him still too closely bound up in the hierarchy and its trappings. The Church remains tragically disconnected from a great part of social reality on the global scale. In its goal to shape social reality, Bob says, the Church has “never reached its ideal.” He concedes that the institution is important. “You [have to] respect the institution,” he says, “but the institution has to be much better related to the base.” The Church still has a great deal of work to do; the institution itself has yet to convert.

The metaphor of the bridge is so important to Bob because it originates from his personal experience of the Church in Latin America. During a visit to Brazil in 2007 for a gathering of bishops at Aparecida, Pelton stayed in a modest boarding house that provided him breakfast and a comfortable bed. The bishops stayed at nearby hotels and would invite Bob up for a drink and conversation in the evenings. But the mingling with important institutional players was much less important to Bob than the daily journey he made to the local church, which required crossing a physical bridge. Each day for a month, he says, he had to “go over a big bridge, a large extended bridge, over to this great basilica where the people would just walk in and out and felt that it was their house.” That bridge is the concretization of Bob’s theology. It is a theology built by a craftsman who converted to a social and political Catholicism many times over the course of his life. Many people in the Church—laity, religious, and priests—have yet to cross the bridge.

Peter Cajka is a postdoctoral research associate with the Cushwa Center. He conducted five interviews with Father Bob Pelton, C.S.C., from October 2017 to January 2018. Audio and transcripts of the interviews will be available for researchers by summer 2018 through Latin American/North American Church Concerns at Father Pelton resides at Holy Cross House in Notre Dame, Indiana, and has been associated with the University of Notre Dame since he first enrolled as an undergraduate in 1939.

Feature image: Father Robert Pelton, C.S.C., admires a mural depicting Monseñor Oscar Romero, painted by Walls of Hope on the exterior of Casa CEBES in Perquín, El Salvador. Photo credit: Victor Maqque.

This story appears in the spring 2018 issue of the American Catholic Studies Newsletter