As recently as the 1950s, it was gospel in certain liberal circles that Catholicism was, to take a leaf from Ben Carson, “inconsistent with the Constitution.” Allegedly authoritarian in its ethos and structure, Catholicism was regarded by many liberal intellectuals—John Dewey and Reinhold Niebuhr among them—as a very real threat to American democracy. Passions had cooled by 1960, when public opposition to John Kennedy’s candidacy on the grounds of his Catholicism was concentrated among conservative Protestants, historically a Republican constituency. But it was still necessary for Kennedy to assure the nation that his religion was a private matter. “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” he famously told the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. “I do not speak for my church on public matters—and my church does not speak for me.” Happily for America’s first Catholic president—narrowly elected, it should be remembered—popes had not yet acquired a taste for foreign travel. (Paul VI was the first to come to the United States, visiting New York for a single day in 1965). A papal visit to Washington would have been, for Kennedy, an extremely awkward affair.
American anti-Catholicism in the 1950s was a pale reflection of its earlier manifestations. Hostility to Catholicism had generated inter-confessional rioting in the pre-Civil War decades, along with a political party whose principal purpose was the exclusion of Catholics from public life. As late as the 1890s, an anti-Catholic political movement was capable of electing scores of local and state officials and even a handful of congressmen. A resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the early 1920s was at least as anti-Catholic as it was anti-black, responsible in Oregon—where the Klan managed to elect a governor and a majority in the state legislature—for a law effectively outlawing all parochial schools. And we all learned in high school history classes about the rumors that flew with regard to Al Smith’s run for the presidency in 1928. The pope, to pick my personal favorite, was said to be hiding in Grand Central Station, disguised as a barber, ready to take up residence in the White House once Smith was elected. Even Donald Trump hasn’t managed to achieve this level of imaginative paranoia.
Fast forward now to 2015 and the Francis-frenzy we have just witnessed in the nation’s capital. Has any visiting head of state been accorded so warm an official welcome or generated such excitement across the partisan divide? Even politicians who resented the pope’s message on climate change and immigration offered praise of his spiritual leadership and sought as eagerly as anyone else to be photographed with him. A normally staid Washington, where cynicism is the reigning mode, was seized by a kind of effervescence; enormous crowds, which included many non-Catholics, waited patiently for even a distant glimpse of the pope and cheers were the order of the day. In the midst of the euphoria, it seemed almost unremarkable that Francis had been invited to address a joint meeting of Congress, though he would be the first pope to accept the invitation. Whatever remained of the anti-Catholic cause was apparently in the custody of a few noisy dissenters in the crowd that awaited the pope’s arrival at the White House, bellowing through their bullhorns about the Antichrist. They seemed not only rude but impossibly antiquated, as if they had just awakened from almost a century’s sleep.
A number of factors explain the erosion of anti-Catholicism in the United States. The Church itself has changed. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) made official Catholic peace with religious liberty and the religiously neutral state, liberating popes from what had become a pointless ritual battle against nineteenth-century liberalism. Catholic immigrants to the United States saw their children and, more frequently, their grandchildren become socially mobile. Especially after 1945, a rapidly growing Catholic population—fully one-quarter of the nation’s total by 1960—moved in large numbers into the ranks of the middle and upper-middle class. Newly affluent Catholics were less reliably Democratic in their voting behavior than their immigrant forebears, emerging in recent decades as a crucial swing vote in national elections. And Catholics themselves proved to be adept at politics. Pope Francis, invited to address the Congress by a Catholic speaker of the House, spoke to a body where 30 percent of the members are Catholic, joined by several members of the majority-Catholic Supreme Court, the Catholic vice president, and the Catholic secretary of state. But Catholic success in this country ultimately rests on our national genius at assimilating widely diverse populations of immigrants. It was this genius, which Americans have periodically doubted, that Pope Francis invoked to such moving effect in his various Washington addresses.
The longest and presumably most consequential of those addresses was delivered to the joint meeting of Congress. The pope spoke slowly, in heavily accented English, and with an air of humility. (He did not use the papal “we.”) But his moral authority was palpable. The essence of the legislator’s calling is service to the common good, he reminded the members, who are so divided along partisan lines that a government shutdown looms. We see polarization on every hand in our deeply troubled world, the pope told his hearers, for whom this could scarcely have been news; “our response must … be one of hope and healing.” Invoking the lives and legacies of four Americans—Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton—Francis proposed a “dialogue” with the Congress “through the historical memory of your people,” artfully avoiding the scolding tone that sometimes marked the speeches of Popes John Paul II and Benedict on their trips to the United States. In essence, he reminded both the Congress and his media audience of what Lincoln called the “better angels” of our national nature.
Americans, like other denizens of the Western hemisphere, “are not afraid of foreigners,” said the pope, “because most of us were once foreigners”—thereby asserting a common hemispheric identity and reminding this particular nation of its immigrant past. Given the xenophobia currently in evidence on the Republican campaign trail and Obama’s executive efforts on behalf of illegal immigrants, one might plausibly see the pope’s heartfelt remarks on immigration as a plus for the Democrats. But Francis went beyond politics, at least in the partisan sense. “We must not be taken aback by their numbers,” he said with regard both to Hispanic migration and the swelling population of refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East, “but see them as persons.” Even Democrats are presumably unsure of the extent to which this particular counsel can be lived. The pope also urged Congress “to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” which brought lusty cheers from the Republican side of the aisle, but pleaded in the very next sentence for “the global abolition of the death penalty.” (Members of the Supreme Court, for whom this plea would seem to have been most immediately relevant, do not appear to have applauded any of the pope’s remarks, which I assume reflected judicial etiquette.) As any Catholic voter could tell you, their Church’s teaching does not fit neatly into American political categories.
In the remainder of the speech, Francis spoke movingly of the urgent need to address both global warming and poverty. “Now is the time for courageous action” on both issues, he told the legislators, whose recent sessions have produced hardly any action at all. He spoke passionately about the evil of the arms trade, in which members of both political parties have long been complicit. No comfort there for members who could not muster votes even to restrain domestic access to high-powered firearms in the wake of the Newtown massacre. The pope concluded with a paean to the family, an institution that—in his words—is threatened as never before. “Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family.” An attack on gay marriage, recently legalized by the Supreme Court? Such is apt to be the dominant reading. But Francis went on to speak of the factors, both cultural and economic, that deter the young from marriage and family formation. Perhaps the pope is more concerned about a radical decline in our marriage rate and the sharp rise in fatherless families.
Francis, as has often been noted, speaks most powerfully when he speaks the language of example. By means of example, he gave the last word in Washington to the poor and those who serve them. Leaving the Capitol with minimal ceremony, the pope travelled to nearby St. Patrick’s church, a downtown institution with a long history of social outreach. Addressing a congregation of the homeless and local representatives of Catholic Charities, Francis—wreathed in smiles—seemed more fully at ease than in any of his previous Washington appearances. “The Son of God came into the world as a homeless person,” he told his listeners, whom he urged to pray and be comforted by the knowledge that God Himself suffered with them. But he did not let the powerful off the hook. “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.” Calling God “Father” means that we are brothers and sisters, said the pope, who had previously referred to himself as “your brother” before the Congress, at the White House, and when speaking to the American bishops assembled at Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Now he reminded these powerful people, and indeed his entire national audience, that their family responsibilities extended to what some preachers like to call “the least, the last, and the lost.”
Political pundits will doubtless say that on the Washington leg of his visit the pope clearly favored the Democrats. The gratitude he expressed for Obama’s recent initiatives on climate change and Cuba would be cases in point, along with the generally progressive tenor of his Washington addresses. That he touched lightly on such hot-button issues as gay marriage and abortion will not go unnoticed, either within the Catholic ranks or beyond. So the pundits will not be wholly wrong. But Francis articulated a vision of politics premised on so demanding a standard when it comes to compassion and solidarity with the oppressed that the Democrats too are bound to fall short. That is why judging his Washington visit in terms of partisan gains and losses misses what was most important about this historic visit.
Leslie Woodcock Tentler is emerita professor of history at the Catholic University of America.