California’s Catholic Browns

Edmund “Pat” Brown Sr. and Edmund “Jerry” Brown Jr., circa 1975. Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

On a February evening in 1960, Jerry Brown, just a few months removed from his seminary studies at the Jesuits’ Sacred Heart novitiate in Los Gatos, left his UC Berkeley room at International House and scouted out a pay phone. Finding one, he called his father, California Gov. Pat Brown, and found him at home in the governor’s mansion.

Jerry had a matter of moral urgency to discuss. In just a few days, Caryl Chessman, a notorious rapist and robber, was scheduled to be executed. His case had attracted international attention, in part because of the dubious circumstances of his conviction and in part because Chessman had written a prison memoir that had gained renown.

Chessman’s fate weighed heavily on the governor, a Catholic who personally opposed capital punishment and who wanted to see it abolished. In the meantime, however, the death penalty was legal in California, and Brown had sworn to uphold all of California’s laws, not merely those he endorsed. Before the phone rang in the mansion that night, he had made up his mind let Chessman die.

Then Jerry weighed in. All of 21 years old, Jerry nevertheless understood plenty about politics and religion. He had studied for three-and-a-half years at the novitiate, and even from its seclusion, he had remained attuned to California politics and his father’s place within it. Jerry, in fact, had advised his father to run for the Senate in 1958, but Pat sought the governorship instead, and now faced the Chessman decision because of his victory that year.

From his youngest days, Jerry Brown was impelled by a search for answers, truths larger than the retail politics his father mastered.

“Avoid anything that would cause the shedding of even a single drop of blood,” St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus, long ago advised. Jerry Brown argued that to his father, insisting that if Pat Brown had any chance to spare Chessman’s life, he should. “If you were a doctor,” he said, “and there was one chance in a thousand of saving a person’s life, wouldn’t you take it?” Pat Brown agreed and delayed the execution, asking the Legislature to consider abolishing the death penalty while Chessman’s sentence was on hold.

In political terms, that was not smart. The Legislature declined to abolish capital punishment, and Chessman was put to death. Those who wanted Chessman dead were infuriated at Brown’s reprieve; those who wanted Chessman spared were dismayed that Brown did not prevent it altogether. Later that year, Pat Brown give his critics another gift when he mishandled his role at the 1960 Democratic convention, where he was torn between his pledge to let California’s delegates vote their conscience and his promise to help John F. Kennedy secure the presidential nomination. By the end of the summer of 1960, Pat Brown would be labeled, indelibly and somewhat unfairly, the “tower of Jell-O,”

But those impulses — loyalty and leadership, faith, conscience and obedience to the law — are among the most demanding aspects of a life in politics. They are the stuff of serious reflection, and they would shape both Browns, father and son, raised in the Catholic faith and destined, between them, to hold the governorship for 24 years.

Pat Brown’s Catholicism was more cultural than searching. He was, as Sean Dempsey, associate professor of history in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, described him, “a recognizably Irish Catholic politician of a certain breed.” Boisterous, generous and outgoing, Pat was raised Catholic and attended Mass, but did not experience a deep connection to God until he was an adult. He wrestled with capital punishment and considered the admonitions of his religion in terms of his obligations to the poor. But he was a politician at his core, devoted principally to service, guided by what was best for his constituents rather than drawn by spiritual impulses. 

Jerry Brown was a different matter. From his youngest days, he was impelled by a search for answers, truths larger than the retail politics his father mastered. Pat loved the glad-handing, the chance to serve and deliver. Jerry was a more intellectual and spiritual seeker, questing not so much to deliver as to discover. 

Jerry’s intellectual and spiritual journeys were inseparable, and both began in his San Francisco childhood. When it came time for high school, his father wanted him to attend Lowell, the public school that Pat and Bernice Brown attended and where they met. Jerry lobbied for St. Brendan’s, a Catholic school. They compromised, as politicians do, on St. Ignatius, the City’s leading Jesuit training ground. It was a fortuitous choice.

Completing high school, Jerry was ready to become a priest, but he was only 17, and his parents were not ready to deliver him to the seminary. Instead, he attended Santa Clara University for a year. At its conclusion, Jerry, now 18 and able to make his own decisions, moved to Sacred Heart.

Jerry Brown, despite coming of age in an era that often mocked structure, refused to abandon order; he was interested in change within rules, not in chaos.

Jerry Brown’s studies for the priesthood did not produce a man of the cloth, but they left lasting impressions. The Jesuits nurtured a questioning mind, though that hardly needed reinforcement in young Jerry. They layered intellectual inquiry across tradition and rules. Exploration was built on structure, and Jerry Brown, despite coming of age in an era that often mocked structure, refused to abandon order; he was interested in change within rules, not in chaos.

As an adult, Jerry Brown was not devout. He did not regularly attend Mass. Michael Engh, S.J., ’72, former president of Santa Clara University, summarized the position of many modern Catholics when he said they were “less interested in the institutional Church, but nourished by spiritual tradition.” That described Brown perfectly.

Some of Brown’s specific policies reflected his religious upbringing. He opposed the death penalty, as his father had. In Jerry Brown’s case, despite serving four terms as governor across an extraordinary expanse from 1975 to 2019, not a single inmate was executed, though that was as much due to the luck of timing as to any intervention by Brown. He eschewed the trappings of office, famously refusing to occupy the governor’s mansion and rejecting state limousines in favor of a blue Plymouth — politically savvy choices that he grounded in his commitment to humility.

Brown’s religious background, however, was most powerful not so much on specific choices as on his approach to problems, particularly those requiring deep reflection. Two areas stand out: discernment and mercy.

Brown often defied simple characterization. On abortion, he clearly supported a woman’s right to choose; yet he vetoed a bill that would have required public universities to provide abortion medication in health centers. He seemed aligned with the Left on the environment, rights for farmworkers, organizing of state employees, but with the Right on curtailing state spending and balancing the budget. His glib explanation became known as the “canoe theory” of politics. Paddle a little on the left, then a little on the right, and steer your canoe down the center.

A better explanation is that Brown was practicing what the Jesuits call “discernment.” It is a way of approaching decisions, as Engh explains, that searches for “a greater good to be followed … what God is calling you to do.” The discerning decision-maker attempts to remove his own biases or interests from a question and then, having done so, asks what best would advance the “flourishing of the human person.” Within that idea lies an explanation of how Brown could demand balanced budgets, even when there were unmet needs,  and support collective bargaining for state workers while complaining about the influence of organized labor. Brown’s practice of discernment was a genuine attempt to resolve problems according to their moral underpinnings, not always successfully, though often so.

His religious training revealed itself in another aspect of his leadership, especially in his final two terms as governor. Brown had a complicated record on matters of crime and justice, sometimes siding with those who demanded punishment, other times feeling for those in custody.

Throughout, he took seriously the obligation to weigh pleas for mercy. Brown never did what his successor, Gavin Newsom, did within days of taking over: Newsom suspended the death penalty in California, effectively prohibiting it for as long as he remains in office. Instead, Brown methodically weighed individual cases, employing an approach that Dempsey sees as particularly in line with Jesuit practice — “setting the ideal of the law against the individual case.”

In practice, Dempsey explained, that means applying the law to the particulars of an individual’s situation. Abortion, to take one example, is always wrong as a matter of Catholic tenets, but the obligation of a priest is to look to the “healing letter of the law.” So, too, with criminal justice under Brown.

The results were striking: The governors who held office between Brown’s two sets of terms granted clemency, either pardons or commutations, in some 500 cases. Brown granted 404 pardons and one commutation in his first eight years; in his final two terms, he issued 1,332 pardons and 283 commutations, more than all the others combined.

“There is wisdom,” Brown said, “in having the possibility of hope.” St. Ignatius would almost certainly agree.

Jim Newton is the author of “Man of Tomorrow: The Relentless Life of Jerry Brown,” which was published this past May. He also has written books about U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and President Dwight Eisenhower. Newton is editor of UCLA Blueprint magazine. He has worked in newspapers for more than 25 years, including as a reporter, bureau chief and editorial page editor with the Los Angeles Times. Follow him @newton_jim.