This week’s Oval Office meeting between Barack Obama and Pope Francis will be the 29th encounter between a Catholic pontiff and a US president. But for decades such a meeting was improbable.
Obama, a Protestant, has been effusive in his praise for the pontiff, but many previous US presidents have been more cautious. Mistrust had long colored relations between the United States and the Vatican.
American Catholics — largely of Irish, Italian, Polish and Hispanic extraction — have been accused of having more loyalty to Rome than their homeland.
– Long-time fears –
“The United States had a long history of anti-Catholicism since the first settlers were mostly Protestants who brought with them their disdain for Catholicism,” said Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter.
“They also feared that if Catholics ever got power, they would impose their religion on the country. The Know Nothings, the KKK, and anti-immigrant movements were all anti-Catholic.”
When Democratic governor Al Smith ran in the 1928 presidential election, he came under withering attack.
“Some critics said that if he won, he would build a tunnel from the White House to the Vatican,” said Reese.
The first meeting between a pope and a president did not come until 1919, until after World War I — when Woodrow Wilson held an audience with Pope Benedict XV.
The next meeting would not be for 40 years, between Dwight Eisenhower and Pope John XXIII.
“Post WWII, American Catholics began to become more integrated into American culture and society,” said Chester Gillis, a professor of theology at Georgetown University.
Many Catholics gained access to university, thanks to the “GI Bill” which helped troops get a university education and enter the middle class.
Mixed-religion marriages became more and more common.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic president, and the only one to date.
But his path to the White House was not without difficulty.
– Changing times –
“Many thought if you elect a Catholic, then the pope will have an influence on political policy in America,” said Gillis.
“There was a fear the president’s first loyalty would be to his church and Kennedy assured people he would not do that. And he did not do that.”
JFK strongly and repeatedly stressed that he was president and not a papal puppet.
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the President — should he be Catholic — how to act,” he said in one 1960 speech when still a presidential candidate.
“I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic,” he said.
“I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me.”
After Kennedy there was a burst of presidential-papal pow-wows. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford all meet their Vatican counterparts.
The Second Vatican Council, which began in 1961, made it clearer that any future Catholic presidents may not face the same doubts Kennedy did.
The church “no longer required Catholics if they came into power to make Catholicism the state religion. The church became a supporter of religious freedom and freedom of conscience,” said Reese.
But in a country where 20 percent of the population is Catholic, it still was not until Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1979 that a pope — John Paul II — would come to the White House for the first time.
Many of these meetings were little more than symbolic gestures, with little political substance.
But the relationship between Ronald Reagan and John Paul II marked a shift; both were vehemently anti-Communist.
Obama has already met Pope Francis once and it has been a meeting of minds.
Both have urged action to tackle climate change and Obama’s efforts to restore ties with Cuba has gelled with the current pope’s efforts to see Havana open up politically.
That has irked Obama’s Republican foes, who oppose the perceived papal blessing for Obama’s political agenda.
In a sign of just how deep the anger is, Paul Gosar a Republican Catholic from Arizona, has stated that he will boycott the Pope’s historic speech to Congress.
“When the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one,” he said.
He accused Francis of adopting “the false science being propagated by the Left.”
“If the Pope wants to devote his life to fighting climate change then he can do so in his personal time. But to promote questionable science as Catholic dogma is ridiculous.”
Gosar and others may take some comforting in the fact that on issues like abortion and same sex marriage there is still a vast distance between Obama and the head of the Catholic church.
Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Cuba has prompted Cuban American faithfuls like Frances Gomez and Martha Lidia Serra Mohr to travel to the island for the first time in decades, with hopes that the pope will bring change to Cuba.