A Sympathetic Retrospective on Catholic Intellectual Steve Allen

COMMENTARY: The fallen-away Catholic entertainer’s issue, one might conclude, was not a quarrel with the Church’s view on thinking, but a personal crisis of faith.

Steve Allen is shown rehearsing at the Hudson Theater in New York City in Sept. 1954.
Steve Allen is shown rehearsing at the Hudson Theater in New York City in Sept. 1954. (photo: Associated Press)

Stephen Valentine Patrick William Allen (better known, simply, as Steve Allen) was born in New York City the day after Christmas in 1921. His father died when he was an infant, which led to his being raised by his mother’s Irish Catholic family on the south side of Chicago.

When he was 16, he ran away from home, later noting how easy it was to descend into begging. He landed his first radio job in Phoenix after spending four months at Arizona State Teachers’ College. In 1943 he married Dorothy Goodman. Their marriage bore three children and lasted until 1952 when, consequent to Allen’s affair with another woman, it ended in divorce.

His failed Catholic marriage was personally devastating. 

“The idea that it could happen to me knocked me for a loop,” he said, “so I tried to read my way out of it and make sense out of life.” 

It was at this dark hour that he decided to leave the Catholic Church. He later told an interviewer that he did not want to belong to a Church that “did all the thinking for you.” He wanted “to think things out for himself.”

Of all the reasons for leaving the Church, accusing it of preventing one from thinking may be the worst. No institution has done more to encourage thinking than the Catholic Church. G.K. Chesterton stated in his book The Catholic Church and Conversion that “to become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking but to learn how to think.” 

In a television series Allen created, called The Meeting of Minds, he dialogued with none other than a resurrected “St. Thomas Aquinas.” But he missed an essential point in the philosophy of the Angelic Doctor. The Jesuit priest and scholar, Father Joseph Rickaby, has remarked, “St. Thomas was not raised up to save posterity from the trouble of thinking for themselves. His philosophy is a starting point: it will take you a long way, but you may have to continue the journey by yourself.” 

Surely, Aquinas was a thinker. But he was also a man of faith. Thinking without faith is to embark on a voyage that never docks. René Descartes perfectly exemplifies the philosopher who travels by thinking alone. It leads, as his critics have shown, inevitably to skepticism. Thinking does not lead to a Triune God, forgiveness, grace or the existence of heaven. When it is severed from faith, it leads to nowhere.

Steve Allen was probably the most multitalented personality of his era. He was a talk-show host and was best known for being the star of The Tonight Show from 1954-57. He was also an actor, a pianist, a composer, a lyricist, a recording artist, an author, a political activist and a comedian. 

He composed, according to his own estimate, 8,500 songs. He won a bet with singer Frankie Laine when he succeeded in composing 50 songs a day for an entire week. In order to authenticate his extraordinary accomplishment, he put himself on display in the window of a Hollywood music store. Some of these songs were ultimately recorded. He wrote more than 50 books and many critiques on religion. He was not only multitalented, but indefatigable.

His spiritual odyssey, however, went from being a Catholic to being a secular humanist. Nonetheless, one may very well ask whether he left the Church entirely.

“Whoever is interested in a better society, a better world and a better morality can count on my support,” he said. Yet, he wondered, “Why do churches let the average believer languish in 1872-type ignorance?” 

Whether it was Salvation Army kettles, Catholic Christmas Seals, a Cult Awareness Network fundraiser or a Unitarian Church benefit, Allen always found time to lend his celebrity status for religious promotional purposes.

He was often critical of rock ’n’ roll music. When Elvis Presley was exceedingly controversial at the time, Glenn C. Altschuler, in his book, All Shook Up: How Rock ’n Roll Changed America, made the comment that “Allen found a way ... to satisfy the Puritans. He assured viewers that he would not allow Presley ‘to do anything that will offend anyone.’” NBC announced that a “revamped, purified and somewhat abridged Presley” had agreed to sing on The Steve Allen Show while standing reasonably still, dressed in tie and tails.

Despite the fact that Allen was a self-identified skeptic, he was not in the least skeptical about public decency. He was highly critical of vulgarity on both television and radio, which has since become the norm. He was particularly strident in criticizing Howard Stern and other “shock jocks.” At the time of his death in 2000, he was completing a book on the subject of morality called Vulgarians at the Gate, about what he saw as "the rising tide of smut on television.”

From a personal standpoint, I admired Steve Allen for his strong sense of morality, his concern for the downtrodden, his tireless efforts to contribute something of lasting value, his engaging modesty, his wit and his charm. 

Did he really leave the Catholic Church? One might surmise that he did, but not completely. The impression the Catholic Church had on him from his early youth until he was 30 years of age, no doubt, left him with a strong sense of morality. Yet, it was unfortunate that he was unable to reconcile the moral standards of the Church with his first marriage.

The Church does encourage thinking, but it also encourages faith. Steve Allen’s issue, one might conclude, was not a quarrel with the Church’s view on thinking, but a personal crisis of faith. 

May he rest in peace in God’s love.

St. Peter's Square, Vatican City.

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