February: a President and a Pope

The reigns of Ronald Reagan and Pope Benedict XVI resemble one another because both presided over periods of “Restoration" and were followed by a further fall.

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February is a month filled with holidays and anniversaries both religious and civic, from Candlemas to Washington’s Birthday. But this year of 2024, with its current ongoing soap opera in the Holy See and upcoming American presidential election, two in particular catch my attention. The first is Ronald Reagan’s birthday on February 6, and the second is the anniversary of Benedict XVI’s resignation on February 28.  

At first, this might seem rather an odd pairing. After all, Reagan left office in 1988, 16 years before Benedict assumed the chair of St. Peter. Surely, Reagan is better placed alongside John Paul II, with whom he successfully worked for the end of the Soviet Union and whose pontificate coincided with the two terms of our 40th president. Whenever the victory over communism is recalled, the duo are inevitably—and not unjustly—mentioned in the same breath. But let us look a little deeper.

Ronald Reagan was a big part of my childhood and youth. He was elected Governor of California from 1966 to 1974. Apart from signing off on legal abortion’s arrival in the Golden State (which he came to regret), the former FDR supporter had been pushed rightward by life. A relatively successful Hollywood actor, his involvement with the Screen Actors Guild brought him to worry about the leftward course of American politics. His experience as governor during the course of the counterculture only accentuated this development. Embraced by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, he failed to win the nomination in 1968 and 1976. But after four years of Jimmy Carter, much of America was willing to embrace change, and Reagan was catapulted into the White House.

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He was the first president I ever voted for—and what a relief he was! After four years of Carter, the Nixon debacle, Vietnam, and the counterculture, we at last had a leader who seemed both capable and confident—ready to lead America out of the morass brought on by the 1960s and into a bright new tomorrow. Reagan’s motto during his first run, “It’s morning in America,” really resonated with a population tired of deceit and defeat, of the “Credibility Gap.”

His first inauguration, which witnessed the new chief executive in morning coat (albeit strolling rather than cutaway) for the first time since JFK swore the oath in 1961) seemed to usher in a new era. Reagan was an actor—and one adept at several roles. He managed to combine the elegance and glamor of old Hollywood with the folksiness of the Midwest and the equestrian skills of the Old West. 

On the one hand, he was a devout churchgoer of the Presbyterian variety, and he called for a renewal of prayer in schools; on the other, he was, to some degree, a disciple of occult philosopher Manly P. Hall and a client of astrologers Carroll Righter and Joan Quigley. (Lest anyone be too scandalized, there were no seances in the White House, as there had been under Lincoln.) His military experience was restricted primarily to making films for the war effort during WWII; but he came across as a credible commander-in-chief.

It is hard to express the initial excitement brought by the “Reagan Revolution.” We were challenging the Soviet Union, we had a president who regularly denounced abortion, and that same president was obviously close to such figures as Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher. Together, they faced the Evil Empire and spoke of shrinking and limiting the size of government. Certainly, the first was accomplished; but not the second. The size of the federal government actually grew under Reagan’s watch.

At the end of his presidency, in 1988, Reagan delivered a farewell address which is almost heartbreaking in retrospect: 

An informed patriotism is what we want. And are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world? Those of us who are over 35 or so years of age grew up in a different America. We were taught, very directly, what it means to be an American. And we absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions. If you didn’t get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties.

But now, we’re about to enter the nineties, and some things have changed. Younger parents aren’t sure that an unambivalent appreciation of America is the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who create the popular culture, well-grounded patriotism is no longer the style. Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs production [protection].

So, we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important—why the Pilgrims came here, who Jimmy Doolittle was, and what those 30 seconds over Tokyo meant. You know, 4 years ago on the 40th anniversary of D-day, I read a letter from a young woman writing to her late father, who’d fought on Omaha Beach. Her name was Lisa Zanatta Henn, and she said, “we will always remember, we will never forget what the boys of Normandy did.” Well, let’s help her keep her word. If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.

I say heartbreaking because even though the Evil Empire did at last fall a few years later, it was replaced by another, morally speaking. Reagan’s words remind one of Norman Rockwell protesting against the ugliness of modern art. The corrupt leadership of the United States and Western Europe made perversion and insanity their state religion, and they ordered their subjects to accept it on pain of cancellation. In the past decade, wokery has emerged, rejecting everything about America and its history as evil—it has been added to the civic faith by those in charge. In a word, so far from being an end to America’s downward slide, Reagan’s time, in retrospect, was simply a pleasant resting spot before resuming our downward swirl around the drains. So far from being an end to America’s downward slide, Reagan’s time, in retrospect, was simply a pleasant resting spot before resuming our downward swirl around the drains.Tweet This

Similarly, in 2005, Benedict XVI was elected pope. For so very many of us, as with the commencement of Reagan’s administration, it seemed as though the clouds that clustered around the Church since the end of Vatican II were beginning to scatter in earnest—although, to be sure, the process had begun in the latter years of John Paul II, after the Soviet Bloc collapsed. There were a few disturbing things—the new pope dropped the tiara from his personal arms; and in his inaugural homily, he asked his flock to “pray that I do not flee for fear of the wolves.” One could not help but wonder what that meant.

But as the years went by, the new pontiff went from strength to strength. In Summorum Pontificum, he liberated the traditional rites of the Latin Church from the ultra vires restrictions placed upon them in 1974 and subsequently. He lifted the excommunications of the SSPX bishops and cultivated closer relations with the Orthodox. Anglicanorum Coetibus created the Anglican Ordinariates, and there were any number of revived papal vestments and customs. As Reagan had wanted to reestablish continuity with the America of his youth, Benedict wished to do so—not with the Church of his youth but with the Church of all ages. He wanted, as he said so often, to replace the “hermeneutic of rupture” with the “hermeneutic of continuity.”

This was a noble goal; and so many of us were overjoyed to watch the good results of that quest as they came in, one by one. Little did we know, however, as under Reagan, that apparent triumph would end with crushing disappointment. The day Benedict announced he was stepping down, my first reaction—remembering his inaugural homily—was, “I guess we did not pray enough for him.” He gave several addresses as February 2013 slowly wore down to his departure. One of these was to the Roman seminarians, and it has a particularly memorable point: 

Inheritance is something of the future, and thus this word tells us above all that as Christians we have a future, the future is ours, the future is God’s. Thus, being Christians, we know that the future is ours and the tree of the Church is not a tree that is dying but a tree that constantly puts out new shoots. Therefore we have a reason not to let ourselves be upset, as Pope John said, by the prophets of doom who say: well, the Church is a tree that grew from the mustard seed, grew for two thousand years, now she has time behind her, it is now time for her to die. No. The Church is ever renewed, she is always reborn. The future belongs to us. Of course, there is a false optimism and a false pessimism. A false pessimism tells us that the epoch of Christianity is over. No: it is beginning again! The false optimism was the post-Council optimism, when convents closed, seminaries closed and they said “but… nothing, everything is fine!”…. No! Everything is not fine. There are also serious, dangerous omissions and we have to recognize with healthy realism that in this way things are not all right, it is not all right when errors are made. However, we must also be certain at the same time that if, here and there, the Church is dying because of the sins of men and women, because of their non-belief, at the same time she is reborn. The future really belongs to God: this is the great certainty of our life, the great, true optimism that we know. The Church is the tree of God that lives for ever and bears within her eternity and the true inheritance: eternal life.

This is an important point. The reigns of Reagan and Benedict XVI resemble one another because both presided over periods of “Restoration,” like those of the British Isles in 1660-1688 and Continental Europe in 1815-1830. These were all pleasant periods of recovery from revolutionary horror. It seemed that a page had at last been turned and normality would reign once more. Alas, it was never to be: after a period of quiet, the evil returned refreshed and ready for more. As Tolkien observed in The Lord of the Rings, the Shadow always returns, albeit in a new form.

But there is a big difference between the histories of Church and State. In the latter case, countries rise and fall—often enough, never to rise again. There are nations and peoples who are extinct. But the Church will outlast all her enemies, interior and exterior, because her life is that of Christ, as Pope Benedict rightly observed. 

Where Ronald Reagan, Charles X, James II, and all other such political figures—and their supporters—could not be assured of final victory over their foes, those who uphold Catholic Orthodoxy need not fear the future. Unless these are the Last Days, then their efforts will sooner or later somehow bear fruit in the eternal world; but their real victory shall be if they gain Heaven. Of course, to the degree that the causes of James II, Charles X, and Reagan—and any other such—involved the defense of the Faith in their particular countries, their leaders and adherents shall share to that degree in that final victory. Despite all appearances, no worthwhile human effort, however small, is really wasted.


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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