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Apr 7, 2005 3:53 pm

The Pope and Presidents

Just how important a role have popes played in the history of the American presidency? Not much for most of our history apparently.

The Messages and Papers of the Presidents, a series published by the United States government, covers all the official papers of presidents from Washington to Wilson.

The 18 volume set includes nearly 10,000 pages of closely printed text. The pope is mentioned just once, in a footnote.

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Ed Schmitt - 4/11/2005

I promise not to take your remarks as infallible if you promise the same regarding mine! I think this is a fascinating post, and I'm also very interested in the thoughts of others. I of course agree with both you and Rick that this perception of the pope as an exotic, foreign remnant of a monarchical past always made the office most powerful in the U.S. as a tool of anti-Catholicism. (I'm even thinking of the 1928 rumors of a tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean to allow Pius XI's minions to more directly advise Al Smith). I'm just not sure what to make of Rick's measurement of the papacy's influence, and the felt need of American presidents to deal with the Vatican. Clearly this is a new era we're in today.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/11/2005


I was thinking of two things.

. Italian nationalism, which was stronger among Italian immigrants here than in some part of Italy at the turn of the century, resulted in many Italian Americans distniguishing between their faith (and local priests, if also Italian) and the papacy. I admit cheerfully that the Irish perspective was probably different.

2. Although "Rerum Novarum" was important in shifting the church away from a conservatism that ignored the needs of a new poor, I think its influence, and the Pope's, was limited in the US so long he seemed a foreign potentate to most Americans. I submitted my correction because I remembered that this perception outlasted the abandonment of temporal power (outside the Vatican) by over a generation.

Finally, please do not take my remarks as infallible. I am well outside my expertise and would be quite interested in seeing some other comments and critiques.

Ed Schmitt - 4/11/2005

Oops - James B. Richardson, not Davidson.

Ed Schmitt - 4/11/2005

Not necessarily, and I was basically thinking out loud, looking for possible reasons. Still, unless I looked in the wrong place Rick (the James B. Davidson 1917 compilation), the index to the Messages and Papers of the Presidents also has no references to the following: Louis Napoleon, Cavour, and Kaiser Wilhelm, and only one reference to Bismarck. Thus, perhaps the index, the papers, or official presidential missives on events in Europe are severely limited.

HNN - 4/11/2005

Rum Romanism and Rebellion.


Catholics probably shifted the outcome of at least opne presidcential election and maybe others.

So as a political force they were powerful. That the Democrats could count on their support doesn't mean Republicans would ignore them, does it? Republicans hardly ignore blacks even though blacks are mainly Democrats.

Ed Schmitt - 4/11/2005

This post has really got me thinking. Is this really an accurate measurement of the papacy's importance and influence in the U.S.? It may be, but a couple other factors have come to mind as reasons why there aren't more (any?) references. First, as a political bloc, Catholics didn't really come into play for both parties until the 1920s and 1930s, because they were solidly in the Democratic camp before that. No need to cater to Catholics, less need to mention their international leader. Secondly, one of the most prominent themes of Catholics in American life through the 1920s was anti-Catholicism, and few (one? Lincoln opposed anti-Catholic attitudes within his new Republican party, but he had bigger fish to fry during his term in office) presidents were brave enough to confront that issue. This still doesn't answer the question why there weren't more references to the pope, but it does make me wonder how many references there were to Catholics.

Ed Schmitt - 4/11/2005

That is the fascinating aspect of the culture wars in the U.S., that conservatives (and liberals) of many faith traditions seem to feel closer kinship with one another than they do with liberals (and again, conversely, conservatives) within their own denominations.

Ed Schmitt - 4/11/2005

Oscar - I'm not so sure I'd agree with your statement "From the 1870s into the 1920s, the power of the Popes was limited by the differences between the Vatican and the new Italian States," but I'm unclear on the context in which you mean "power of the Popes." The doctrine of papal infallibility was adopted at the First Vatican Council in 1870, and the primacy of the papacy was made clear there as well. In the United States reverence for the Pope in church hierarchy was never higher than in the late 19th century and early 20th century, which historian Steven Avella has called the era of the "confident church" in the U.S. Of course all this refers to the papacy's role within the Church, but it seems that the social teaching, Rerum Novarum (1891), including Leo XIII 's powerful critique of both socialism and capitalism was also a sign of papal influence abroad. Clearly this was not the political papacy of the Middle Ages, but I'm not sure it was weaker in its influence in the U.S. than in earlier periods.

Jonathan Dresner - 4/11/2005

Yeah, though the valence has changed somewhat: look at the beating Kerry took for being a bad Catholic.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/8/2005

Two corrections.

1. I meant to type John XXIII, not John XXII

2. More significantly, I reconsidered my comment about the 1920s. It was only after Kennedy's presidency that a president might find have found associating himself with a Pope to be a positive.

And I think a Catholic president would still have to be more careful as opposed to a protestant such as Bush.

HNN - 4/7/2005

Thanks Oscar for that elaboration. I'd add that Rutherford B. Hayes was bashing Catholics but he did so sneakily. He came out four square for PUBLIC schools. This was a swipe at parochial schools. This shows up in the official papers.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/7/2005

It is not surprising that Popes do not show up in those papers. For much of our history, the Catholic Church was the exemplar of authoritarianism. And for a very long time, Popes did much to support that view. While the growing Catholic population make Pope-bashing a questionable tactic for presidents in the 19th century, there was little reason to discuss him in a positive light.

From the 1870s into the 1920s, the power of the Popes was limited by the differences between the Vatican and the new Italian State. From the 1920s forward, it was conceivable for a Pope to be a positive force from the perspective of a president, but, with the possible exception of John XXII, none did until a John Paul II made himself a public entity.