March 30, 2018

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Patty Crowley was most important lay woman of her time

John F. FinkI’ve been writing about Catholic women this month for Women’s History Month. It occurs to me that three of the four I wrote about were women religious, so I’d better write about another lay woman.

Patty Crowley was one of the founders of the Christian Family Movement (CFM). Sociologist and novelist Father Andrew Greeley said of her, “In terms of lay activism, Patty was the most important woman of her time, and CFM was the most important movement of the preconciliar Church.”

CFM began as one of the Catholic Action lay organizations pioneered in France by Canon Joseph Cardijn’s Young Catholic Workers. Holy Cross Father Louis Putz brought its principles to the University of Notre Dame, and I was privileged to work with him as a student as he spread the Young Catholic Students movement. CFM started after some of those students married and started families, notably Burnie Bauer in South Bend and Patrick Crowley in Chicago.

Pat and Patty Crowley married in 1937. He became a successful lawyer, and the couple settled down in Wilmette, Ill. They had five children, including an infant who died. They also took in 14 foster children and adopted one of them.

CFM began after Pat and Patty met Burnie and his wife Helene at a Cana conference in 1948. They located other couples who had been meeting to solve local problems using Cardijn’s Jocist Method (observe/judge/act) to solve those problems. They then called a national seminar in 1949 that attracted 59 delegates from 11 cities.

Pat and Patty were elected executive secretary couple, and they led the movement for the next 20 years. It spread quickly during the 1950s, eventually attracting 125,000 couples in the United States and 26 foreign countries. In 1957, Pope Pius XII awarded the couple the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal during the World Congress of the Laity in Rome.

In 1964, Pope Paul VI invited them to join the Papal Birth Control Commission to advise him on the morality of new contraceptive methods. At a commission meeting, Patty presented the results of a large survey of married couples they had authorized. It showed how painful, and unsuccessful, most Catholic couples found the practice of the rhythm method.

The commission recommended that the Church’s teaching on contraceptives be changed, but two years later Pope Paul issued his encyclical “Humanae Vitae” upholding the Church’s teaching. Some 25 years later, in an article in National Catholic Reporter, Patty admitted that, because of that decision, “I feel betrayed by the Church.”

Pat died in 1974, but Patty continued her work for social justice and charity. She served on the Chicago Housing Authority and the Chicago Foundation for Women. She helped found Deborah’s Place, the largest private, multi-service shelter operation for homeless women in Chicago. Her daughter, Benedictine Sister Patricia Crowley, was executive director for a time.

Patty remained active until her death in 2006 at age 92.

Meanwhile, CFM still exists, but it is much smaller than it was prior to the Second Vatican Council, at least in the English-speaking world. It appears to be stronger in other countries. †

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