Pope Francis and America’s shifting views toward Catholics (COMMENTARY)

pope benedict XVI
President Bush welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to the White House on Wednesday (April 16). Benedict is only the second pope to visit the White House. Religion News Service photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar.

(RNS) Did you catch the shoutout to Pope Francis during President Obama’s State of the Union address? It’s only the third time in history that’s happened.

Francis’ name will resurface in Congress later this year if and when he accepts an invitation to address lawmakers — that would be a historical first — during his September trip to Philadelphia, Washington and New York.

“We might say, really, the highlight of the Washington visit might be his speech to the joint meeting of Congress, to the Senate and the House of Representatives,” said Archbishop Bernardito Auza, a member of the papal visit planning committee.

However, such a speech will be far more than a “highlight.” With a Catholic vice president and a Catholic speaker of the House looking on behind him, the speech will serve as a vivid reminder of how far Americans have come in overcoming deeply embedded anti-Catholic prejudice and bigotry.

That bigotry includes Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1813: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. … In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.”

Indeed, during much of the 19th century, Catholics were accused by nativist Americans — who were overwhelmingly Protestants — of undermining the American experiment in democracy. Sometimes those accusations were accompanied by violence.

In 1834, a convent in Charlestown, Mass., was torched. In 1844, a riot in Philadelphia resulted in the deaths of 13 people and the destruction of two church buildings. In the same decade, the American Protestant Association was formed to denounce the “principles of popery” because they were considered “subversive of civil and religious liberty.”

In 1835, Lyman Beecher, a prominent Presbyterian preacher and a seminary president, advocated the exclusion of Catholics from any Western settlements as Americans moved in increasing numbers beyond the Eastern Seaboard. Ironically, his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a novel that drew attention to the evil of slavery in the U.S.

President Ulysses S. Grant publicly worried about a nation with “patriotism and intelligence on one side and superstition, ambition and greed on the other.” The Civil War hero also wanted public schools to be “unmixed with atheistic, pagan or sectarian teaching,” a not-so-subtle negative reference to Roman Catholicism.

In 1928, New York Gov. Al Smith was the first Catholic to run for the White House. During that campaign, there was a tide of anti-Catholic bigotry. There were fears Smith would take direct orders from the pope in Rome. Some bigots spread the rumor the pontiff was planning to move into the White House if Smith became president; Smith lost to Herbert Hoover in a landslide.

Even as late as 1960, some prominent Protestant ministers who feared a Catholic president campaigned against John F. Kennedy. The pastors, including the late Norman Vincent Peale, the author of the best-selling “The Power of Positive Thinking,” were fearful that JFK’s Catholic faith would collide with his constitutional responsibilities.

In a speech to a group of Protestant leaders in Houston, Kennedy famously rebutted such charges by asserting his personal and political independence from the Roman Catholic Church in matters of public policy. He narrowly won the election and still remains the only Catholic to reside in the White House.

Interestingly, Kennedy had only one papal meeting. When he met Paul VI in Rome in 1963, JFK was careful to only shake hands with the pope rather than kiss the pontiff’s ring, the usual etiquette for a Catholic.

President Bush welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to the White House on Wednesday (April 16). Benedict is only the second pope to visit the White House.  Religion News Service photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar.

President Bush welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to the White House on Wednesday (April 16). Benedict is only the second pope to visit the White House. Religion News Service photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar.

During the past 50 years there have been many more meetings between U.S. presidents and popes, but only two pontiffs have actually set foot in the White House. In 1979, the Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter welcomed John Paul II; in 2008, George W. Bush, a born-again evangelical, greeted Benedict XVI on the South Lawn.

Although John Paul and Benedict did not choose to do so, they could have easily unpacked their overnight luggage and stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom as honored guests — something that would have been inconceivable in the days of Jefferson and Grant.

When Francis addresses Congress, it will be another tangible sign that “the times, they are a changin’.” And for that, we can all be grateful.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)


About the author

A. James Rudin


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  • Joseph Biden is not a serious Catholic and you’re reduced to dredging up Thomas Jefferson’s correspondence and 180 year old incidents of mob violence because you do not want to look the social reality squarely in the face. If you did, you’d see the problem presented by the legal profession, contemporary academe, the social work profession (and the Vichy clergy, while we’re at it). These are the real threats to observant Catholics, not insults uttered by James G. Blaine.

  • Francis is little different from prior popes. He opposes contraception and, like Benedict, claims that condoms lead to the spread of AIDS. It represents an effort to torture Church teachings into coinciding with reality.

    Moreover, the Church, as an institution, is not content to have its teachings on homosexuality obeyed by adherents. It continues its efforts to impose its teachings on everyone else by force of law. Fortunately Abp Cordileone has failed miserable in that regard when it comes to marriage equality.

    Nevertheless, Church teachings are represented by then Cardinal Ratzinger’s treatise on same-sex unions (as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). While professing love he called gay people “objectively disordered.” He also claimed that “we do violence to children” when we allow them to be raised by same-sex couples. That’s “love?”

    Francis told a bit of a fib on Monday in order to make a point as he was attempting to meddle in US foreign policy ( ). It went unchallenged – perhaps unnoticed.

    The majority of American Catholics support marriage equality and reproductive choice. They are certainly using contraceptives. Vice President Biden is a prime example of modern Catholic thinking. Alas, my late boyfriend of 30+ years and a Catholic was terribly conflicted. He was never entirely comfortable in his own skin.

  • Some things still don’t change, like religion getting involved in politics; “separation of church and state” is still not taking place, even in the Catholic church.

  • It continues its efforts to impose its teachings on everyone else by force of law.

    David Cary Hart, sorry to break it to you, but matrimonial law incorporates a recognition of status and confers obligations more than anything else. That requires an understanding of what forms proper human relations take. We can have the common understanding or we can have silly social experiments dreamed up by our supercilious professional-managerial bourgeoisie. Someone‘s standard are reflected in law.

    Since you’re given to complaining about impositions, perhaps you might consent to restoration of freedom of contract and business relations not subject to the vetting of attorneys. Look forward to your statements of support.

  • In one big respect anti-Catholic bigotry is alive and well and flourishing..
    No group’s right to try to convince a majority of Americans to its point of view is ever challenged–except the right of Catholics and/or their leaders. Does anyone challenge the right of Planned Parenthood or Gay activist groups to be advocating their point of view in law and culture the way so many go virtually hysterical when Catholic people or Catholic clergy engage in the public square (every organization’s American rights)?
    Yet it is a common strategy to attack the Church for being engaged when one runs out of rational arguments against the Church’s position. If you can’t convince people to side with you to kill unborn children –then try to get them to side with you by challenging the Church’s right to act as any other group in society.

  • So only those in favor of butchering unborn children–even at the moment of birth–like Planned Parenthood- should be allowed to take part in the American democratic process???. Yet it is in the democratic public square that much of a country’s moral profile is formed. So we should leave all morality to politicians’ judges, media mouthpieces, etc????. because some people completely misrepresent what the First Amendment’s real intent is????—and it isn’t to shut up religious moral voices whether from Church leaders or Church members. Though some now use it to attack and silence religious voices in the Public Square.

  • For years people have taken faith out of the public forum. We have tried to conceal our faith until an offense occurs and then we respond. We must not let the culture that says to hide your faith win the argument by hiding. Of course the only way to counter the culture that there is no God is with love. We see hate everywhere and only with God do we have love because he is Love.

  • Art Deco, you are correct. To be more direct, the LGBTQ agenda is proving a real challenge to Catholicism in the US, but the Protestants are also taking heat for their opposition as well. The same agenda, pushed globally under the guise of a human rights campaign is wreaking havoc in the rest of the world. Yes, Biden has been a chief cheerleader writing such into the constitutions of third world countries. The Pope has reached out for union with Protestants to fight such concerns. Rick Warren accepted, but others have fought the concept of working together with Catholics, crying some of the same old lines as in the article from the 19th century. In the meantime, America’s newborns are increasingly Catholic and it’s possible, America may become a largely Catholic country before this century is done.

  • You disclose your sexual preferences in the first sentence, no need to wait till the end, as 99% of this type of vitriol comes from the same evil hole. May your friend’s conflict result in his reformation and renewal in Christ, and may he provide a needed example for you.

  • Apples are apples not oranges, why combine two topics? Unnatural sex will always be unnatural in Gods eyes, yes he loves everyone even the most lost criminals, but he wants people to realize what is wrong, repent and do his will. Even animals don’t practice unnatural sex, some dogs may, are men dogs or men?

  • Catholics and Protestants both claim to base their faith on the bible. So base your arguments on that. It’s easy to point fingers at people who don’t practice what they preach or who “fall” from time to time. Or what polls dictate.
    Also be honest yourself use proper terms like abortion or homosexual marriage. I get tired of double speak.

  • Deacon John,

    I am not for abortion, nor even going to war to kill our fellowman; but those who are for those actions and actually do them will have to live with their actions, since everyone is endowed with “free will” as to how they live their lives!

    I do not get involved in man’s politics because I am a theocrat and support God’s rule instead of man’s. I give my allegiance to God’s kingdom or heavenly government as the “only” hope of government for us humans. I shall not “straddle the fence” when it comes to that and vote for man’s rule at the same time.

    I pay my taxes and obey man’s law as long as it does not oppose God’s commands, principles and guidelines. If man’s laws oppose God’s law, then I am compelled to obey God as ruler rather than man, even if I have to face persecution or imprisonment for my stand. The apostles faced constant attacks as brought out in the book of Acts, but they remained faithful.

    But don’t you worry…there are still many religions who refuse to be a minority or theocrat like me, and they will continue to vote, go to war, etc.

    As a personal example, I have a relative whose church encouraged their parishioners to vote for the Republican party since it was “closer to their religious beliefs”; her vote went to the Democrats twice in a row! That was her choice.

    Finally, God’s kingdom will soon put an end to all human governments and rule in their place and stead
    (Daniel 2:44; Isaiah 11:1-9); so people are really voting for a lost cause, no matter where they live; but that is their choice or exercise of free will.

    I have made my choice for the BEST of governments, God’s kingdom.

  • Phoenix fan,

    Yes indeed, God is love (1 John 4:8)!! And there is no way a loving God would ever torment anyone in a place of fire forever, either, after death, as many religions teach. Our Heavenly Father would never even consider doing that to his earthly children!!

    There is only the common grave where both good and bad persons are sleeping in death, not aware of anything at all (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10).

  • You cannot be Catholic and be pro-choice, pro-homosexual marriage, and pro-contraception. Go find a protestant denomination to adhere to, there are thousands to choose from. Christianity is not a democracy nor is it for the faint of heart. The teachings of the Catholic Church are based on scripture and elaborated on further in its catechism. These teachings span two millenia and come up again and again throughout history as cultures change, but neither Christianity nor Catholicism will change, nor should they. The idea they should is really a Western phenomenom put forward by the hedonistic, narcissistic, and relativistic agendas circulated by the amoral media. God created us in His image and made us all perfect. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and do the same to your brother/sister. So as a Catholic I value the life God created (anti-abortion/contraception), and I love all those (all of us) who have crosses (disordered behavior) to bear.

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