Why are we making such a monumental fuss over the visit of Pope Francis to America?
So he is the first pope ever to speak to Congress, and he will also visit the White House, New York City and Philadelphia. While millions are excited to the point of frenzy, millions more ask what it’s all about.
There are many reasons, of course, starting with the vital significance of the pope in the practice and history of Roman Catholicism. But the visit also matters because of the history of Roman Catholicism in America.
Even those who are legacy (or lapsed) Catholics, rarely if ever attending Mass, have a shared identity based on that history — an identity often embedded in their ethnic or cultural background. And in America, that is often intertwined with a sense of persecution.
What does, for example, the moniker “fighting Irish” mean? Whether on the gridiron at Notre Dame or in everyday life, the phrase evokes an oft-embattled minority defending itself and staking its claim. And the same can be said for Italians, Poles, Quebecers, Hispanics and others whose Catholicism set them apart in the past — and may still.
Catholics have been part of the American story from the 1600s, of course, and were represented among the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution. But they were a minority, and the virulence of the religious wars in Europe was both a memory and a continuing theme for many in Colonial times.
That was why the Founding Fathers banned any “religious test” for office in Article VI of the Constitution and added the “Establishment Clause” in the First Amendment — to insulate the new nation from the sectarian sorrows of the Old World. And that was relatively easy in the early years of the republic as the main diversity of faith came from the various denominations and flavors of Protestantism.
The idea of a pope coming to Washington and meeting with the president was unthinkable before the 20th century, in part because popes did not travel much (if at all) and in part because America would have been less than welcoming. For most of our history, to be Catholic was to be at least slightly out of the mainstream. Many Protestants felt the pope embodied the schism in Christendom, that he demanded a loyalty above one’s national allegiance and that he somehow threatened their own religious dominion.
This suspicion and hostility reached an early peak with the influx of Irish and German immigrants in the mid-1800s. It has been estimated that the U.S. Catholic population spiked by 40 percent in just the first half of the 1850s. The first papal nuncio (or Vatican ambassador) arrived in 1853, sparking objections among those who thought the pope would begin to influence affairs in Washington. President Franklin Pierce appointed an Irish Catholic postmaster general, fanning the fears and adding momentum to the first nativist movement in the U.S.
The Catholic population continued to grow in the 20th century, especially as the Democratic Party’s base went from rural to urban. Yet no Catholic was nominated for president until 1928, when Alfred E. Smith, the popular governor of New York, lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover. Smith lost in large part because Protestants remained suspicious of what some called “papism” or the party of “rum, Romanism and rebellion.” In 1928, even parts of the “Solid South” defected to the GOP.
An additional 32 years would pass before a second Catholic won the Democratic nomination. His name was John F. Kennedy, and his religion was a major issue in both the primaries and the general election (which he won by a fraction of a percentage point). Kennedy gave a major speech forswearing any fealty to Rome and insisting his faith would not dictate his “views on public matters” as president. That speech, delivered before a hall of Protestant ministers in Houston, was considered crucial to his viability as a candidate.
Kennedy was president for less than three years, and it is unlikely he would have risked the political backlash of a papal visit to the U.S. In October 1965, however, Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson went to New York City to greet Pope Paul VI, who was attending a general assembly of the United Nations. He went there after signing the landmark Immigration Act of 1965, the most liberal legislation ever enacted on the subject.
It was a day when America was issuing a welcome to the world, and the first visit by a pope seemed a fitting, if coincidental, emblem of emerging globalism. Paul was not only the first pope to visit America; he was the first to reach the Western Hemisphere (and the first to leave Italy since 1809). He stayed in New York a day, celebrated Mass in Yankee Stadium and left the country without even stopping in Washington.
The next pope to visit America was that most peripatetic of pontiffs, John Paul II, who spent much of his papacy traveling the world. In 1979 he made a seven-city tour of the U.S., speaking to immense crowds in places like the downtown Chicago lakefront and also meeting President Jimmy Carter at the White House on Oct. 6.
In 1987 he stayed even longer, meeting with President Ronald Reagan in Miami. He also made two brief stopovers in the decade, using Alaska as a pit stop while flying to Asia on the over-the-pole route. On one of those occasions, during his re-election year of 1984, Reagan traveled all the way to Fairbanks to greet him. John Paul II came back twice in the 1990s, meeting with President Bill Clinton both times.
By the time John Paul II died in 2005, a papal visit was regarded as public relations gold. Catholics had long since become a swing vote in presidential elections, and a crucial one, making any chance to be associated with the pontiff a political no-brainer.
John Paul II’s successor, Benedict XVI, was a German theologian and a conservative hard-liner in Vatican politics and beyond. He came to the U.S. in 2008 at a low point in the presidency of George W. Bush (who eagerly met the pontiff at Andrews Air Force Base). In addition to his White House call, Benedict went to New York City to offer a blessing at the site of the World Trade Center.
But at no time in the past has any previously visiting pontiff spoken on Capitol Hill. So Pope Francis will be breaking through yet another stained-glass ceiling when he addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday.
This event has been described as the hottest ticket in town, or even as the hottest Washington ticket in history. But at least a few members will cede their own seats in protest of Francis’ views. Paul Gosar, a Catholic freshman from Arizona, says he respects the pope and the church’s historic stance on abortion, divorce and gay marriage but cannot countenance the pontiff’s warnings about climate change.
Perhaps it is another sign of the changing times and shifting political realities that a Catholic in Congress would care more about energy policy than about the symbolism of the first pope to hold forth in the American temple of democracy.