The most significant thing about Pope Francis’ address to Congress is that it happened.
During most of American history, a majority of Americans saw the Roman Catholic Church as an enemy of American freedom and democracy. Persecution of Catholic immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s was worse than persecution of Muslim immigrants today.
This would be unthinkable today, and it reflects changes in both American public opinion and Vatican policy.
The Founders of the American republic defined themselves in opposition to the absolute monarchs of Europe.
The French Revolution was a revolution against the church as well as against the king and aristocracy, and, after the defeat of Napoleon, the Papacy aligned itself with the Holy Alliance, a union of Austria, Prussia, Russia to suppress any democratic uprising in Europe.
Vatican policy for more than a century was based on opposition to the legacy of the French Revolution, and, as a result, all revolutionary movements in Catholic countries were anti-clerical.
Catholics in Protestant countries were persecuted sometimes by law and almost always in public opinion. Poor Catholic immigrants into the United States had equal legal rights, but in the early 19th century were targets of mob violence, both because they were poor and foreign and because they were regarded as proxies for the Vatican.
The Roman Catholic Church condemned a vaguely-defined heresy it defined as “Americanism,” which was the idea that the church should modify its doctrines to fit the conditions of a changing world.
I think the church’s fears of Americanism proved to be well-founded in the long run, because many American Catholics today feel free to discard church teachings, such as a ban on birth control, which they think obsolete.
Failure to recognize this was the great flaw of Paul Blanshard’s 1949 best-seller, American Freedom and Catholic Power. He depicted the church as a totalitarian movement, exactly equivalent to Soviet Communism. He pointed to the church’s support for dictators such as Mussolini, Franco and their Latin American equivalents, and its attempt to enact Catholic teaching about divorce, birth control and censorship into U.S. law.
Up until 1960, there was as serious question as to whether any Catholic could be elected President of the United States. I would have questioned this myself if I had not happened to know any Catholics. As it was, I realized that my Catholic friends were diverse individuals and not the obedient sheep that Blanshard depicted.
The election of John F. Kennedy showed Americans they had nothing to fear from a Catholic president. I can’t think of anything decision Kennedy made that he wouldn’t have made if he had been raised a Protestant.
The Vatican Council of 1963-1965 showed the church’s leaders intended to be part of the modern world. Without changing any basic teachings, it showed that Catholicism was compatible with democracy and progress.
U.S. political alignments changed. The liberal and conservative Protestant alliance in support of separation of church and state was replaced by a conservative Protestant and Catholic alliance in opposition to political secularism.
A lot of the issues that Paul Blanshard discussed are still with us—support for dictatorships, abortion rights, marriage—but unlike in 1949, public opinion on these issues is not divided along sectarian religious lines.
In 2004, members of the George W. Bush administration reportedly were impatient with the Catholic clergy because they were too weak in condemning John F. Kerry on abortion rights. In general, though, few people cared that Kerry was a Catholic.
Nor did they care that Democratic vice-presidential candidates Sargent Shriver (1972), Geraldine Ferraro (1984) or Joe Biden (2008 and 2012) were Catholics. Nor that Republican vice-presidential candidates Jack Kemp (1996) or Paul Ryan (2012) were Catholics or that the present Sentate Majority Leader John Boehner is a Catholic. Or that six of the present Supreme Court justices are Catholic and the other three are Jews.
Maybe someday Americans will be as indifferent to the Christian-Muslim divide as they are about the Protestant-Catholic divide. Maybe someday a popular Imam will address the U.S. Congress. Who can say?
Pope Francis’s address to Congress: official text.
Pope Francis Is Not ‘Progressive’ – He’s a Priest by Emma Green for The Atlantic.
Pope Francis in America: There are three types of U.S. Catholics and none of them completely agree with the Vatican by Catherine A. Brekus for Slate.