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Stebbins, H. Lyman


Lay activist, Knight of St. Gregory, first president of Catholics United for the Faith; b. New York, Sept. 1911;d. New Rochelle, N.Y., Feb. 19, 1989. Stebbins' great grandfather, Henry George Stebbins, was president of the New York Stock Exchange and one of the founders of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His father, Rowland Stebbins, left Wall Street in 1929 to become a producer on Broadway. Lyman Stebbins was educated at St. Bernard's in New York City, St. Paul's in Concord, and Yale University, class of 1933. The Yale years were lived without any particular religious commitment, the nominal Episcopalianism of his childhood having given way to a moral and spiritual vacuity. Upon graduation from Yale, he ratified family expectations and entered the brokerage house of DeCoppet and Doremus.

Stebbins' conversion to Roman Catholicism followed a literary turn. C. S. lewis' works moved him to Anglo-Catholicism, while Jacques maritain's The Things That Are Not Caesar's provided a cogent explanation of papal prerogatives and the nature of the teaching office of the Roman pontiff. After taking instruction from Fr. Vincent Holden, CSP, he was received into the Catholic Church in London in 1945.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Stebbins led a life of quasi-retirement and solitude, becoming a Benedictine oblate. He was attracted by the contemplative life, and, in particular, the singing of Gregorian chant with the religious and with his brother and sister oblates at Mount Savior Monastery in Elmira, N.Y., and the convent Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn. His meditative disposition was given a philosophical and theological focus through contacts with Catholic scholars, such as Baldwin Schwarz and Dietrich von Hildebrand. Stebbins served as friend and editor to both of these men, helping to make their works known to a wider public.

Catholics United for the Faith. In September of 1968, Stebbins was invited by the advisory board of the newly created group Catholics United for the Faith to serve as its president. The immediate crisis precipitating the formation of CUF was the dissenting posture adopted by American theologians and the other signatories of a document that challenged Pope Paul VI's restatement in humanae vitae of the Church's ban on contraception. "Unstinting loyalty shown to the Holy Father had been a hallmark of American Catholicism," Stebbins argued, yet this loyalty was now threatened by the "widespread spectacle of dissent." Drawing upon his "novitiate" of reading and praying practiced in the years after his conversion, Stebbins saw his summons to be the formation of a group apostolate of the laity that would rally to the side of the pope while also being formed according to the mind of the Church in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. The council's Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam actuositatem) had left a deep impression upon him.

The organizational structure of CUF developed to include an international headquarters in New Rochelle, N.Y., with a network of 110 chapters in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana, and Myanmar, comprising a membership of 16,000. In July of 1994, the international office was relocated to Steubenville, Ohio. Each chapter was urged to follow a tripartite scheme of prayer, study of the faith, and action. Stebbins worked earnestly to convince members affiliated with CUF that any "action" undertaken for the good of the Church would need to be preceded by prayer and study of the faith. Cardinal Newman became a central influence in the development of the CUF spirit, especially with reference to his enjoinder that "the laity know just where they stand," and that "they know their faith." Stebbins's stress on piety and the call to holiness caused some Catholics of a more truculent spirit to fall away from the association, while his resolute support of Paul VI and the pontiff's reform of the sacred liturgy led to the eventual termination of chapters in Georgia and North Carolina that had declared support for Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

Throughout the 1970s and mid-1980s, Stebbins faced the delicate issue of the relationship of individual lay members of CUF and their bishops. Writing in CUF's monthly publication Lay Witness, Stebbins recalled the immense dignity of the episcopal office, yet he did not shy away from stressing "the obligations which bishops owed to the faithful." If, however, after respectful implorations from the laity, the bishop still seemed obdurate, "then the matter should be peacefully and confidently left in the hands of Christ."

While many Catholics were looking to CUF as a principal vehicle to reform the Church in America, Stebbins was reminding everyone that true renewal had to start at home. Speaking to the National Sacred Heart Congress in Hazelton, Pa., in 1978, he underscored the fact that the priesthood of the faithful was to be exercised in a special way by the laity in the home, the domestic church. Such a role remained quite distinct from the ministerial priesthood, yet was indispensable. Pope John Paul II conferred on Stebbins the Knighthood of the Order of St. Gregory on Jan. 10, 1989.

Bibliography: p. allitt, Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 195085 (Cornell 1993). h. l. stebbins, The Priesthood of the Laity in the Domestic Church (New Rochelle 1978); "The Responsibility of the Laity to the Bishops and Vice Versa," Lay Witness (March 1985). j. a. sullivan, "H. Lyman Stebbins: The Planting of a Seed," Catholic Free Press, March 17, 1989; "Catholics United for the Faith: Dissent and the Laity," in Being Right: Conservative American Catholics, ed. m. j. weaver and r. s. appleby (Bloomington, Ind. 1995).

[j. sullivan]

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