Choosing the Presidency Above Catholicism

“What the hell is an encyclical?” Who the heck asked such a question? Hint: the person who did the asking was a Catholic, a Democrat, and a candidate for president. That narrows things down more than a bit. Hmmm. . .might it have been John Kennedy or Joe Biden? No and no. The answer is Al Smith, the first Catholic to be nominated to run for president by one of the two major political parties in all of American history.

The year was 1928. Then serving his fourth term as Governor of New York, Smith was a decided underdog in his race against Republican candidate Herbert Hoover. More—or less—than that, he was also a frustrated underdog; hence his exasperation and his question.

That question was no doubt evidence of a measure of ignorance on the part of this Catholic layman. But it was also indirect evidence of his operating assumption: independence of mind; namely, that one could be a loyal American, a faithful Catholic, and a good Democrat all in one—and all without reading the latest words of the Pope.

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Nonetheless, Smith was under attack for his Catholicism. Would his first loyalty be to his country or to his Church? Governor Smith could anticipate no problems. He wouldn’t take orders from anyone, including the Vatican. He wouldn’t oppose Church teaching, but he did oppose public aid to private schools, including Catholic parish schools. He was simply a professional politician, who made no pretense of being so much as even an amateur theologian.

According to Frances Perkins, a Smith ally and later FDR’s Secretary of Labor, the governor knew little about Catholic theology and “didn’t care much about it.” He was prepared to be judged on his record, including his support for the repeal of Prohibition, and not on his knowledge of this or that papal encyclical.

Whether Smith lost to Hoover primarily or secondarily because of his Catholicism will likely never be established with complete certainty. But down to defeat he went, carrying only eight states totaling a meager 87 electoral votes. Six of the eight states in the Democratic column were states of the Old Confederacy. Each was solidly Democratic and just as solidly Baptist. In all likelihood, Smith would have lost had he been a mainline Protestant. General prosperity defeated him more than anything else. Still, his 41% of the popular vote bettered the performances of the two previous Democratic nominees. 

Prohibition was certainly not an issue that reached encyclical status. In fact, many prominent Catholics could be found on either side of this divide. For example, St. Paul Archbishop John Ireland had supported a ban on both booze and saloons because he thought that both retarded the assimilation of immigrants. Smith saw great value in assimilation—with or without saloons.

Three decades would pass before another Catholic would make a serious run for the presidency. That, of course, would result in John Kennedy’s narrow victory in 1960. Once again, the Democratic nominee was an ethnic Catholic. (Smith was actually a mix of Irish, Italian, and German ethnicity.) Like Smith, Kennedy was a skilled politician devoid of theological concerns or interests. Unlike Smith, Kennedy was something less than a faithful Catholic and not exactly an observant one.

Still, there were those same nagging concerns about the candidate’s ultimate loyalty. Those concerns were expressed by a broad cross section of Americans, including mainline Protestant leaders, such as Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, as well as Democratic party veterans, including Eleanor Roosevelt, and not a few liberal intellectuals.

In fact, Kennedy aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. publicly labeled anti-Catholicism as the “anti-Semitism of the intellectuals” before going on to classify anti-Catholic sentiment as the “last acceptable prejudice.” 

(The twice-defeated Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson did not share this prejudice. While campaigning for Kennedy in St. Paul, Stevenson was asked about Peale’s opposition to JFK. His response was vintage Stevenson: “I find St. Paul appealing and Peale appalling.”)

Many today may doubt the depth and breadth of anti-Catholicism among American intellectuals. But it was a very real thing in 1960, and it remains a very real thing today, especially among allegedly progressive intellectuals.

So real was it that candidate Kennedy had to respond—and face it down. He chose to do so in an appearance before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Very early in his speech, Kennedy declared, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”  

In a general sense, Kennedy’s position was similar to that of Smith. He, too, opposed public aid to parochial schools. But the adjective “absolute” suggests a significant difference. For Kennedy, his faith was entirely a private affair and one that would not inform his presidential decisions: “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

But Kennedy’s Houston talk did speak volumes. In it, he articulated an entirely secular vision of American identity, while going further than any previous candidate in separating himself and his political views from his religious faith. In fact, so secular was his position that some American bishops publicly wondered if Kennedy would even represent the Church’s views fairly and accurately.

Now fast-forward six decades (thereby skipping over Catholic John Kerry’s defeat in 2004) to the election of our second Catholic president. Once again, the politician in question is an Irish Catholic Democrat. But the differences are profound. Today’s Democratic party is not the Democratic party of either Al Smith or John Kennedy. It is itself a secular institution with policy and program positions that fly in the face of Catholic teaching.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with that. Political parties are free to appeal to voters as they see fit. But what happens when faith and policy collide—or don’t collide? What happens to the political leader? What happens to his country? And what happens to his Church? We may well be on the verge of getting answers to such questions.

Whether as candidate or now as president, Joe Biden has long since decided to take positions in opposition to Catholic teaching. Neither Smith nor Kennedy chose to do that. Nor did either feel compelled to do that. Two of the most prominent such issues today are, of course, abortion and same-sex marriage.

Of course, the matter of some form of public aid to private schools remains an issue today. Here there is seeming consistency among Smith, Kennedy, and Biden. All three have opposed such aid. But Smith and Kennedy regarded the public school system as an agent of Americanization. To say the least, it does not function as anything approaching that sort of agent today.  

On the matter of abortion, Biden had been what amounts to a Mario Cuomo Catholic: “I am personally opposed, but. . .” Having officially withdrawn his support for the Hyde amendment, Biden’s personal opposition to abortion is clearly compromised. More than that, his personal opposition can no longer be regarded as the beginning and the end of the matter.

On same-sex marriage, Biden helped drag (pun intended) his former boss, Barack Obama, out of the closet occupied by those opposed to taking this step. He even prides himself on having officiated at a same-sex wedding. 

On both these issues, President Biden might claim to be exercising either Smith-like or Kennedy-like independence of mind. Fair enough. But both positions stand athwart any position either Smith or Kennedy could have imagined taking or being required to take, not to mention the position of his Church.

Moreover, Biden’s stand on both of these issues runs against Catholic teaching in ways that issues of, say, immigration and social welfare do not. The “seamless garment” argument does not wash. How many of the former and how much of the latter are matters of prudential judgment, not matters of adherence to specific religious teachings, whether they are promulgated encyclical-wise or otherwise. 

To this point, Biden has paid no price, political or otherwise, for his stands. Will President Biden pay a price at some point? We’ll see. Will he prove to be at the forefront of leading his Church to new territory? No. Or will his Church lead him to return to its fold? We’ll see. Someday, will a Catholic presidential nominee take a firmly Catholic position on these highly controversial matters? If so, will that result in a revival of the “anti-Semitism of the intellectuals?” Once again, we’ll see.  

To date, Joe Biden has simply drifted along with his party as his party has continued to drift—and sometimes lurch—to the left. His most telling talent seems to be figuring out where the mainstream of his party is and floating along that stream as best he can.  

In any case, to date he has been much more determined to get right with his party than to get right with his Church. Some see him as acting courageously in doing so? Cravenly or cunningly might be more accurate adverbs. But no matter the choice when it comes to this part of speech, our current president seems to be saying, in effect, to hell with at least a few encyclicals.

One way or the other, he might benefit by paying attention to a Catholic writer—and Catholic convert—by the name of G.K. Chesterton, who once remarked that only dead things go with the stream, while living things can go against it. At the moment, and for quite some time now, Mr. Biden has been playing the part of a dead thing by going with the stream of his party and the times, while engaging in a lively revolt against his Church. 

As might be expected, Chesterton thought that it was seldom a good thing to go with the flow of one’s time—or to be a child of one’s age. While Joe Biden is most assuredly not a young man, he is very much a child of this age. Here’s hoping that he’s not too old to find wisdom in his Church.  

That would be the same Church—and its ageless encyclicals—that Chesterton joined because he wanted to belong to a church that moved the world, rather than to a church that moved with the world. President Biden seems to take pride in being a child of this age. Chesterton thought that the Catholic Church was the only thing that prevented him from the “degraded slavery” of being a child of his age.  

If it might strike many as too much to hope that Biden might have a change of mind and heart, let’s remember that hope is a Christian virtue. And let’s keep in mind something else that Chesterton said by way of defining hope: “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all.”   

[Photo Credit: L’Osservatore Romano]


  • John C. Chalberg

    John “Chuck” Chalberg is a retired academic, having taught American history for years at Normandale Community College in the suburban Twin Cities. He graduated from Regis College, Denver and has a doctorate in history from the U of Minnesota. He performs as Chesterton, H.L. Mencken, Theodore Roosevelt and a few others, and has written for the print version of Crisis, the now departed Weekly Standard, National Review, and regular reviews for Gilbert! magazine.

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