Can a Catholic Be Elected President?

After Al Smith lost his race for the Presidency in 1928, he jokingly remarked that he had sent a one-line telegram to the Vatican: “Unpack”. It took unusual good grace to joke about the matter, given that he undoubtedly lost many votes due to anti-Catholic sentiment in America.

The ghost of anti-Catholic bigotry, it has been thought, was laid to rest by John F. Kennedy’s victory in 1960. Kennedy surely lost some votes because of his Catholicism, but the net effect may actually have been to help him. (As in the recent Chicago mayoral election — in which some commentators spoke favorably of an “impressive black vote” and unfavorably of a “racist anti-black vote” in the same breath — Kennedy may have benefited from the fact that prejudice is associated more with voting against those who are different than with voting for those who are one’s own.) At any rate, it is not so clear to me that Kennedy’s victory settled an issue that is more complex than it is usually regarded these days.

In his Houston speech to Baptist ministers in the 1960 campaign, Kennedy emphasized several things. First, he strongly believed in separation of church and state, and had no desire to subvert the First Amendment or religious liberty. Second, he did not and would not take orders from Catholic ecclesiastical leaders – Pope or bishops. Third, his political views were his own, as for instance his “declared stands against an ambassador to the Vatican, against unconstitutional aid to parochial schools, and against any boycott of the public schools.”

But in the end Kennedy went further: “I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling, or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictate.” Were there to be a conflict between his conscience and the national interest, he said, he would resign.

Such statements raise serious questions about both Kennedy’s understanding of his Catholicism and the terms upon which a Catholic may be elected President. There is no problem with Kennedy’s pointing out that he is not simply subject to ecclesiastical direction: phone calls from the Vatican with orders to do such-and-such are hardly the issue. But implicit in Kennedy’s remarks is a distinction between his religious views, which are “his own private affair”, and his views on matters of national interest, which are dealt with according to “conscience”. Kennedy told Americans that he would deal with such matters as “birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling” — and today he would have had to add to this list abortion, and perhaps the use of nuclear weapons — “without regard to outside religious pressure.”

But outside religious pressure is not the main issue. The real question concerns internal religious pressure — the pressure of a conscience formed in the light of Catholic moral teaching. Distinctions between “private religious views” and “conscientious views of the national interest” make a mockery of religion, or at least of Catholicism. How can one “privately” believe that abortion is murder and then proceed to assert views of the national interest which treat it simply as a private matter of “choice”? If I heard someone say that he firmly believed that anti-Semitism was evil, but that the next- door Nazi was free to do as he pleased to Jews as a matter of free choice, I would have to regard this as gross hypocrisy, if not obvious dissimulation.

Catholicism does assert the primacy of conscience in moral action. But any good Catholic knows that the complete statement of the principle is that one must follow a correctly-formed conscience, and that Catholics are obligated to form their consciences in light of the Church’s teachings.

This still leaves abundant freedom to Catholics in politics. First, the application to concrete circumstances of the Church’s teachings — which are normally quite general — is often complex and difficult, requiring a knowledge of human sciences and, about all, prudence. Thus, there is much room for Catholics to differ about public policy. Second, Catholics may often have to tolerate compromise in regard even to fundamental principles. For example, in our pluralistic (and increasingly secular) society, any attempt in the foreseeable future to abolish completely divorce or even (God forgive us) abortion seems to me impracticable, and Catholics may have to fight for compromises that can be justified only as a toleration of evil necessary to avoid yet greater evils.

Still, having acknowledged that room for freedom, Catholics in politics must be guided in their formation of policy positions (and in their striking of compromises) by consciences informed by the Church’s moral teachings, if their Catholicism is to be taken seriously. This fact may not have occasioned as much difficulty when Al Smith was running. He was able to say simply that he could not conjure up a possible conflict between his religious principle and political duty “except on the unthinkable hypothesis that some law were to be passed which violated the common morality of all God-fearing men.” Such an hypothesis is now lamentably all too thinkable — in fact, with the legalization of abortion, it has ceased to be an hypothesis.

With the breakdown of the traditional Christian consensus on numerous matters of morality (especially those relating to family, marriage, and sex), a new situation emerges. Matters that are not intrinsically Catholic — where the Church itself in fact bases her teachings on the natural law — have become accidentally so. This is most obviously true of contraception, but would apply in some degree to matters on which the Catholic Church and more traditional Protestants and Jews agree, such as abortion, homosexuality, and pornography.

There are other important issues in the Church’s social teachings that have an important bearing on politics. Some of these are uncontroversial in American politics for the most part, e.g. the right of workers to form unions, while others leave wide room for disagreement as to the best means to achieve them, e.g. the right to a job and a just wage. Others, however, could have a more direct impact on our politics. The condemnation of indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations raises serious questions about the present form of our nuclear deterrence strategy. The primacy of the parents in education, and the obligation of Catholic parents to educate children fully in the Faith, are moral principles requiring some form of government support for religiously-affiliated schools.

The real question today about whether a Catholic could be elected President is not so much anti-Catholic nativism as deep differences about important moral questions. Could a Catholic whose political views were shaped by the social teachings of the Church (even allowing for his legitimate right to make necessary compromises) win the U.S. Presidency? (I take for granted, moreover, that such a candidate would not publicly emphasize the connection between his Catholicism and his positions — he needn’t ask for trouble!)

I don’t know that there is a clear-cut answer to this question, but here are some considerations that might affect it. First, there are factors which would make nomination of a Catholic candidate (one who was more than “sociologically” Catholic) difficult in both parties. This is most obvious in the Democratic Party, where “new class” secular views such as support for abortion and homosexual rights, and opposition to censorship of pornography and to private school aid, is so strong among party activists. (Of today’s leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, for example, only Rubin Askew is against abortion; most of the others fervently support it.)

In the Republican Party there is the tension between Catholic teaching and extreme laissez-faire economic (as opposed to cultural) libertarianism. While Catholic social teaching is perfectly compatible with the view that the market is a very useful tool, it condemns the position which absolutizes private property and the market principle. (To put it another way, Catholic social teaching harmonizes much more with George Will or Irving Kristol economics than with Barry Goldwater or Milton Friedman economics.)

Second, the fact that a Catholic candidate advocates certain policies may change the political complexion of things. A non-Catholic could much more easily send an ambassador to the Vatican (just as it was easier for Nixon to change relations with China). A non-Catholic such as Reagan who opposes abortion is less subject to the strange but widespread argument that this violates separation of church and state because it is imposing a moral norm particularly associated with Catholicism. A non-Catholic who proposes parochial school aid or other, indirect forms of support for private education is less subject to charges of sectarianism. A non-Catholic could much more easily undertake to eliminate tax subsidization of Planned Parenthood and the pressure on behalf of contraception and sterilization in many foreign aid programs. In such cases, moreover, a Catholic — especially one who would not go out of his way to say that his Catholicism would not affect his politics — would be likely to face opposition based not only on the substance of the issues, but also on residual pockets of anti-Catholic sentiment in America.

Politics is very unpredictable, and I can imagine circumstances in which a Catholic might win the Presidency. On the whole, however, I am convinced that a Catholic who could not successfully downplay his support for positions that would tend to raise the religious issue, and who would not pay the price Kennedy did — forswearing any impact of his religious views on his political views — would be extremely unlikely to be elected President.

This should not be unexpected. There is nothing to guarantee that Catholics will not have to pay a price for embracing values which are at odds with American cultural values (especially the increasingly secular values of American elites). Nor are Catholics the only group that faces such difficulties — other religious and racial groups face similar problems.

Catholics should face up to this tension, especially so they can resist the temptation to resolve it by accommodating themselves to secular trends. This should be done without bitterness or complaining. However understandable a reaction that would be, it is an obstacle to having an effective influence on American politics. Catholics can cheerfully accept these facts of life, while asserting their rights and striving to make their own distinctive contribution to the common good. At the same time, they can hope for the adventitious circumstances which make the unlikely — a Catholic president — possible.


  • Christopher Wolfe

    From 1989 to 2021, Dr. Wolfe was President of the American Public Philosophy Institute, an interdisciplinary group of scholars from various universities, supported by local business and professional leaders, that promotes a natural law public philosophy rooted in the principles of the American Founding. The APPI is now the Dallas Forum for Law, Politics, and Culture, and Dr. Wolfe is President Emeritus. He also is one of Crisis Magazine's original writers.

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