As recently as Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United States in 1979, newscasters focused their analysis on the separation of church and state, and concerns about papal influence over the White House. Even as the newscaster in this video suggests that concern over these issues were in the past, the fact that they are the sole content of his report suggests otherwise. John Paul II himself was sensitive to the political implications of his visit. We have in our collection a 1979 confidential internal State Department memo stating that “The Pope stressed…that his visit would be pastoral and not political.” “If the Pope does not come this year, he will not visit until after 1980, since he wishes to be totally uninvolved in our election process.”
For most of American history, such fears of papal influence were palpable and often at the center of politics. Samuel F. B. Morse (the inventor of the telegraph) wrote in 1835, “…emigrant Catholics…confine themselves simply and wholly to increasing the number of their sect, and the influence of the Pope in this country. The American Party (a.k.a. the Know-Nothings) swept to election victories in the 1850s on the fear of Catholic immigrants and papal control.
It wasn’t until 1928 that any major party even considered a Catholic presidential candidate. Alfred E. Smith, a popular and progressive governor of New York lost to Herbert Hoover, in large part because he was a Catholic. Many believed the rumor that he had wired the pope after losing the election with the message, “Unpack!”
In 1960, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism was a big issue in the presidential campaign. Pope John XXIII reportedly joked, “do not expect me to run a country with a language as difficult as yours,” when he heard Kennedy might win. Many Americans sincerely feared that Kennedy would take orders from the pope, undermining American sovereignty. To establish his independence from the Vatican, Kennedy made it a point to say, “I did not, would not, nor have I accepted that kind of dictation.” He went on to establish definitively that allowing the pope to dictate American policy would be grounds for impeachment of any president.
No pope even visited the United States until 1965. That year, President Johnson met with Pope Paul VI at a hotel room in New York, notably avoiding a visit to the White House. Magazine inserts and commemorative books, like the selected pages from this one, were titled “Fourteen Hours,” highlighting the brevity of the pope’s visit. And Paul VI’s main reason for coming to the United States in 1965 was to address the United Nations, a clearly international institution. Had the pope gone to Washington at all on that historic visit, he would have certainly been accused of meddling in American politics.
It is truly remarkable that Pope Francis will speak before Congress this week. It will be interesting to hear this first papal speech before the American government, ever.
View some images from our collection of earlier papal visits to New York.