The Pope

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The Pope

Within the Roman Catholic Church, the pope serves a dual role as both the Bishop of Rome and the spiritual and symbolic leader of the Church as a whole. According to Catholic doctrine, the pope is the ultimate arbiter of Church tradition and, in specific cases, his teachings are recognized as infallible in matters of faith and morals. As the global personification of Catholicism, the institution of the papacy has exerted a strong influence on American religion, culture, and politics, shaping not only how Catholics expressed their religious beliefs, but how they were viewed by their Protestant neighbors. Throughout American history, Catholicism in general and the papacy in particular has sparked periodic attacks by "nativist" Protestants who saw newly arriving Catholic immigrants as detrimental or dangerous to American society. In the nineteenth century, this resulted in several riots in northern cities and the burning of Catholic churches, schools, and convents. Although tensions between Catholics and Protestants cooled in the twentieth century, attacks against "popery" remained a common feature of America's political and cultural institutions. Both evangelical Protestant leaders and the popular press condemned Catholic immigrants as soldiers or spies for Rome who were undermining the Protestant character of the nation.

The crux of the nativist argument was that individuals, particularly newly arrived immigrants, could not be spiritually committed to the pope and remain politically loyal to the American government. One of the most outspoken proponents of this nativist rhetoric was the early twentieth century writer and agrarian Populist Tom Watson. Watson insisted that several Catholic groups in America—parish priests, the Knights of Columbus, and religious orders, particularly the Jesuits—were actually the pope's secret warriors. Their goal, Watson claimed, was to overthrow the American republic and en-throne the pope as supreme ruler over the United States. The same themes were articulated by the prominent anti-Catholic journal The Menace, which both warned of a papal coup and blamed Catholic corruption for the failure of progressive political reforms. The Menace was founded in 1911 and, within four years, it boasted a circulation in excess of one and a half million and spawned a host of imitators in rural towns throughout the next decade. Tensions with Germany and the rise of World War I brought a halt to The Menace, and a lull in anti-Catholicism in general, in the later half of the 1910s as resentment toward the pope was shifted toward the Kaiser. In the 1920s and for the next several decades, however, Catholics were exposed to renewed attacks, largely from the Ku Klux Klan. Catholics were one of many groups singled out as "un-American" by the Klan, which became an increasingly powerful and political organization.

American Catholics' own understanding of the papacy have often been ambiguous. On one hand, Catholic prayer, ritual, and iconography had centered on the pope. But, on the other hand, Americans frequently reinterpreted, or even ignored, papal demands that seemed out of place in American life. During the first decade of the twentieth century, Pope Leo XIII and Pius X routinely condemned Catholic leaders for cooperating with Protestants in providing public schooling for Catholic children, involving the laity in parish affairs, and their ecumenical work with other Christian denominations. By labeling these offenses "Americanism," the popes insisted that Americans had broken from longstanding Catholic traditions and needed to bring their behavior in line with the rest of the Catholic world. Yet, on several levels, the breach between America and Rome increased over the next several decades, particularly in the liturgical movement of the 1930s and 1940s, which sought to reform the traditional Latin Mass long before it was altered by the dictates of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Thus, American Catholics were caught in a paradoxical bind, criticized by their religious leaders for being too American and denounced by journalists and politicians as not American enough.

America's uneasiness towards Catholicism often had deep political implications. "No Popery" and "Immigrants Out" became synonymous slogans in the political battle for immigration restriction in the 1920s. In fact, the immigration quotas adopted in 1924 were designed explicitly to exclude large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe whose religious beliefs and ethnic stock were deemed inferior to Protestant Americans. In 1928, Al Smith, the Catholic governor of New York, encountered similar resentment when he ran for the presidency. Although he won the Democratic nomination, Smith was denounced and defeated largely over assumptions that he would bring "Popery" into public schools and undermine the Protestant character of the nation. Although Smith's criticisms toward prohibition and his Democratic connections also hurt his campaign, his attachment to "foreign" Catholicism contributed to Smith's loss to Republican candidate Herbert Hoover.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy faced similar opposition in his presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. Kennedy, a Catholic Senator and Democrat from Massachusetts, was heavily influenced by the anti-Catholic propaganda surrounding his candidacy. Kennedy often downplayed his connections to Rome, insisting that he "wore his religion lightly" and that the Constitution, not papal dogma, would dictate his political decisions. In the Senate, Kennedy voted against using federal funds to subsidize parochial schools and opposed the appointment of an American ambassador to the Vatican. While both moves earned him sharp reprisal in the Catholic press, Kennedy's political record also demonstrated to many Protestant voters that Catholicism was not enough to disqualify a candidate from office. Some conservative critics still felt that Kennedy's election was part of a papal plot aimed at subjecting Americans to Roman rule. But Catholics cheered Kennedy's election not simply as a political victory but as a symbol of Catholics' prosperity and success in spite of adversity and bigotry.

According to Catholic doctrine, when a reigning pope dies, a new one is chosen by the college of Cardinals—a group of high-ranking Church officials throughout the world. Although the papacy as an abstract symbol has played a pivotal role in shaping America's politics and culture, the actions of certain individual popes have also attracted American attention among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. One example is Pius X (1835-1914), who reigned as pope from 1903 to 1914 and was the only twentieth century pope to be declared a saint. Pius X seriously offended many Americans by refusing to receive Theodore Roosevelt during his visit to the Vatican because the former president had visited a Methodist congregation earlier on his trip. A more significant example of the papacy's role in American culture is the decision by Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), who reigned from 1958 to 1962, to call the Second Vatican Council. Convened from 1962 to 1965, the rulings of the council transformed Catholic religious services and increased communication and dialogue with other religions. But, more importantly, Vatican II sought to "shake off the dust" in Catholicism by signaling a new willingness to participate in and minister to an increasingly complex modern world.

Yet, for many Catholics, John XXIII's successor, Paul VI (1897-1978), did much to undo the enthusiasm and liberalism generated by Vatican II. In 1968, Paul VI issued an encyclical (papal ruling) known as Humanae Vitae that denounced all forms of artificial birth control; it was rejected by 90 percent of American Catholics as well as several of his own advisors. While he upheld the rulings of Vatican II, Paul VI represented a conservative shift in Catholic leadership that continued through the late twentieth century. This is particularly apparent in the papacy of John Paul II (1920—), formerly the Archbishop of Krakow and the first non-Italian pope elected in over 400 years. While previous popes had remained in relative isolation within the Vatican, John Paul II has been a tremendous world traveler known for his charisma and dramatic speaking voice. While he has received criticism in both America and abroad for his condemnation of abortion, birth control, homosexuality, and women's ordination, John Paul II has increasingly brought Catholicism into the public eye. John Paul II has been the twentieth century's longest living pope, as well as one of its most prolific and outspoken. His conservative theology has caused many late-twentieth-century Americans to view the papacy not as an institution bent on national domination, as was feared in earlier decades, but as either a guardian of traditional morality or an outdated model of leadership that has become increasingly out of touch with the modern world.

—Justin Nordstrom

Further Reading:

Bentley, James. God's Representatives: The Eight Twentieth-Century Popes. London, Constable and Company Ltd., 1997.

Dolan, Jay P. The American Catholic Experience: A History from Colonial Times to the Present. Notre Dame, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

Fuchs, Lawrence H. John F. Kennedy and American Catholicism. New York, Meredith Press, 1967.

Hingham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925. New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1988.