Almost 50 years ago on October 4, 1965 Pope Paul VI visited the United States. This was the first Papal visit to the United States in history and marked an important moment in the relationship between Washington and the Holy See. There was no fanfare, no official reception at the White House, and certainly no address to a joint session of Congress. Rather, President Johnson “conveniently” was in New York at the same time as the Pope and the two met quietly at a hotel.
For people who have only lived during a time when Popes and Presidents have been friendly with one another, it’s critically important to know that, especially on the day that Pope Francis makes another Papal visit to our nation, that the national perception of Catholicism in this country has not always been as accepting as it is today. Certainly there are some anti-Catholic prejudices that remain in portions of the country, but the vast majority of Americans would not have qualms about electing a Catholic to public office. This was simply not the case even 100 years ago.
The fall of the Papal States during Italian Unification (The “Risorgimento” 1848-1871) caused the United States to lessen its diplomatic contact with the Holy See. It was not until President Franklin Roosevelt that the United States established a diplomatic presence at the Vatican. This move was so controversial at the time that the diplomat appointed by President Roosevelt was a “personal envoy” rather than an ambassador so as to avoid a contentious vote in the United States Senate. While the use of “personal envoys” continued, President Truman’s attempt to appoint an official representative in 1952 was met with such strong opposition that the nominee withdrew. This situation persisted until 1983 when the policy was done away with. Less than a year later, in 1984, President Reagan normalized relations with the Vatican and an ambassador was appointed and confirmed.
The issue of anti-Catholic prejudice in American elections was so palpable at times in the last century that it led John F. Kennedy, then a Senator and Presidential Candidate, to give the impassioned, and oft-repeated line: “For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.” Kennedy, who opposed an ambassador to the Holy See, and did not appoint a personal envoy, has been largely credited with opening the nation’s highest office to Catholics as the first Catholic President.
Pope Francis’ arrival in the United States and his particular positions on matters spiritual and temporal are the subject of news reports across the country. Using the name of the Holy Father to bolster positions and get in front of television cameras seems to be the focus in Washington DC this week.
One particular issue of note this week has been the discussion over whether a Muslim would be capable, from a theological and political perspective, of being President of the United States. The answer, of course, is yes. But the reality of that answer shows the deep divide among some in the country who are fearful that Islamic culture or militancy, would result in a disqualification for the Presidency. Certainly we are aware that Article IV of the Constitution provides that there is to be no religious test for office. Generally, this provision means that we cannot have a law that says “you must swear that you are an Anglican to serve in office.” The corollary interpretation is inferred: “you cannot be made to disavow your religion in order to serve in office.” This reality seems obvious, but it has arisen as a matter of public interest this week.
Based on percentages, the United States will likely not have to confront the hypothetical Islamic Presidency for a while. According to the Pew Research Center, non-Christians make up about 5.9% of the nation’s population. Of this percentage, about 1% are Muslim. The fastest growing group is “unaffiliated” which takes into account atheists, agnostics, and “nothing in particular.” It is far more likely that a Presidential candidate will emerge in the coming years with no religion rather than one who is an adherent of Islam.
If the United States should take anything from the change in the national perception of Catholics from the first visit of a Pope to the United States in 1965 to the visit of Pope Francis in 2015, it should be that the American people are, by a large majority, far more interested in policy goals, economics, and creating a better life for the next generation than where someone decides to go to pray. We do not live in an era when Popes bestow crowns on rulers or where we believe that the hand of providence raises up leaders based on divine right. Rather, we trust in the reasonableness of our fellow Americans to select the right person to fulfill a task.