Tom Clancy: That Baltimore Catholic and his generic beliefs

As I have mentioned many times, Baltimore culture is both historically Catholic and very liberal and the state of Maryland is used to having political leaders who are openly Catholic, yet clash frequently with the church hierarchy on issues of moral theology. Meanwhile, the newspaper that lands in my front yard just off the south edge of the Baltimore Beltway is, if anything, to the political and cultural left of the Maryland mainstream.

Thus, it is safe to say that The Baltimore Sun is not the place readers will want to look today if they are seeking insights into the moral (some kind of pro-life Catholic) and political (solidly Republican) beliefs of the late Tom Clancy, the Baltimore native who died Tuesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital at the age of 66.

For years, I have listened to liberal and conservative Catholics argue about the degree to which Clancy’s novels — which certainly contained a worldview far from the Hollywood norm — reflected moral absolutes that were or were not rooted in his Catholic heritage and education. Are we talking “just war theory” or “just war, baby”? And what were readers to make of that Catholic super hero Jack Ryan and his remarks about Roe v. Wade?

OK, I was idealistic this morning. I thought that the long A1 obituary in the Sun would at least address whether Clancy was or was not an active Catholic. Yes, he was a very private man and there was the matter of his divorce and remarriage. However, there were plenty of churches close to his luxury condo near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

This is all readers learned on the religion and worldview front:

Thomas Leo Clancy Jr., the son of a mail carrier and an eye surgeon and insurance agency manager, grew up in Baltimore’s middle-class Northwood neighborhood. “I was a little nerdy but a completely normal kid. Mom and Dad loved each other. It was like ‘Leave it to Beaver,’” he told The Sun in 1992.

His education was Roman Catholic, beginning with St. Matthew’s grade school. He went on to Loyola High in Towson, an all-boys school with an all-male faculty and a rigorous Jesuit curriculum. Students took four years of Latin, wore jackets and ties, and began each class with a prayer.

“He was kind of his own man. He was quiet and toward the shy side,” Father Thomas McDonnell, a former Loyola faculty member who taught Mr. Clancy religion, Latin and history in his sophomore year, recalled in an interview with The Sun some years ago.

He described Mr. Clancy as a straight-A student from the standout class of 1965, but unremarkable as a leader or athlete. …

While some of Mr. Clancy’s classmates went on to spend the late 1960s on campuses rife with antiwar activism, he moved to Loyola University Maryland, where the ruling Jesuits had little tolerance for demonstrations.

OK, but what if Clancy’s moral/religious worldview was reflected in some way in all of those bestselling novels? What if the content of the books actually had something to do with his fan base and his popularity?

This is the rare case in which Charm City’s newspaper didn’t even pursue the political side of this matter.

Instead, the Sun team pretty much ignored the content of the man’s work and left things at the “king of the techno-thriller” level. While your GetReligionistas are, as a rule, opposed to journalists equating religious beliefs with political stances, I was amazed that this lengthy and otherwise well-researched piece on a prominent local celebrity never even explored the man’s political beliefs.

The word “conservative,” for example, never appears in the obit. Instead, there is this nod to a political tie that certainly boosted sales of “The Hunt for Red October” and, thus, the hot start of Clancy’s career:

The book got a significant boost when President Ronald Reagan declared it a “perfect yarn” and other officials hinted playfully that it might contain classified information. One version of that story has a publicist working feverishly to get the book to the presidential bedside table, but Mr. Clancy insisted it was simply a reviewer with a friend with connections who passed it along. …

In 1985, Mr. Clancy told The Sun that he wasn’t trying to write the great American novel.

“I did not write King Lear. I am not Hemingway, Faulkner or Shakespeare, and I won’t say Steinbeck, because I don’t like him,” he said.

“The whole point of writing is to get an idea out of your head and put it in somebody else’s head,” he told the newspaper in 2004.

That’s interesting. Now, what — to be precise — were some of those ideas that Clancy was trying to get out of his own head and into those of millions and millions of readers?

Just curious.

The story does end with this note:

For all of his celebrity, Mr. Clancy kept a rather low profile in Baltimore, preferring to quietly dine at Aldo’s in Little Italy or send a driver for takeout, said Sergio Vitale, the restaurant’s proprietor.

No information about services was available Wednesday.

It will be interesting to see if there is a formal funeral Mass and, if so, where it will be held.

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Howard

    The two main elements that can make a book of fiction “Catholic” are (1) the choices made by the author about what to include, and in what detail, and (2) the moral structure of his imaginary universe: does evil “pay” in the long run in that universe?

    On the first point, I am not aware of any evidence that Clancy was Catholic. I read several of his books when I was an undergrad / beginning graduate student — Red Storm Rising, The Hunt for Red October, Cardinal of the Kremlin, Clear and Present Danger, and The Sum of All Fears — and I started reading Without Remorse, but towards the end, I became convinced he was slipping into some kind of soft porn. The number of pages devoted to the sex lives of this characters had sharply increased, and he was giving far more lurid details than I wanted. Maybe sex sells, but he was looking like a sell-out to me.

    It is only on the second point that he seems to be have written “Catholic” books. For example, Capt. Ramius was in some ways parallel to Samson. Both come to a point in which they realize they have lost everything truly important, and both, in an act both of revenge and to validate something more important, bring down a structure in the expectation of losing their own lives. Ramius did not just (seemingly) throw away the chance of spending his “golden years” in some retirement dacha; he threw away his position of honor within the Soviet Navy, helped to undermine the navy he had spent a lifetime building up, and directly contributed to the deaths of several of his students. Even though usually “the good guys win”, they do not win without cost, and characters can switch from “good guys” to “bad guys” and vice versa — and back.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    There was a lot of Catholic stuff in his novels, notably the 80′s Georgetown Jesuits fighting Communism. Sigh. I wish that still seemed likely.


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