Echoes of history as Pope Francis speaks to Congress

As Pope Francis goes before a Joint Meeting of Congress today, the first time a Pope has addressed lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol, the event stands as a historic reminder that such a moment was unthinkable for much of the history of the United States of America.

“The Pope will be very well received here in the United States,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, anticipating the adoring crowds that have greeted him so far in Washington, D.C.

But it hasn’t always been that way in this country for Catholics, and especially in the political arena of the U.S. Congress.

If the walls could talk in the very U.S. House chamber where the Pope will speak, there would be echoes of virulent anti-Catholic feelings from the American past.

There were House members like Lewis Charles Levin of Pennsylvania, elected in the 1840’s in the wake of anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia, who used the House floor to denounce a “flood of immigration” dominated by Roman Catholics.

“No Pope can ever be worthy of an ambassador from this Republic,” Levin said in March of 1847, during a House debate over establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

“This country seems destined to be the grand theater of Roman Catholic power – not American Papistry, but the Papistry of Rome,” Levin said.

The Pope will address a legislative body where lawmakers once openly questioned whether Catholic immigrants deserved American citizenship, worried they would follow the orders of Rome over the U.S. Constitution.

“We desire no special legislation against Catholics,” said Rep. Thomas Whitney of New York, even as he charged on the House floor in July 1856 that Catholic voters had “anti-American influences, prejudices and superstitions of their church.”

“I have no objection to any man of the Catholic Church or faith,” Rep. Nathaniel Banks said earlier that year, as lawmakers debated how much control the Pope should have on property owned by the church in America.

“Undoubtedly he can do as he pleases in Rome, where he has political power; but he cannot in the United States, where he has no political jurisdiction,” Banks said.

Anson Burlingame, a Congressman from Massachusetts, was one who tied the Catholic Church to slavery, joining two explosive issues before the Civil War.

“Slavery and priestcraft…have a common purpose,” Burlingame charged in an 1854 speech. “I say they are in alliance by the necessity of their nature, for one denies the right of a man to his body and the other the right of a man to his soul.”

The Pope will speak in a chamber where in August of 1876, lawmakers overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the Constitution that was designed to stop Catholic schools from receiving government education money.

The amendment had been suggested by President Ulysses S. Grant in his official message to Congress in 1875.

It did not contain the word ‘Catholic,’ but that’s what it was all about.

“In other words, it was an anti-Catholic measure that still permitted a generalized Protestantism in public schools,” wrote Philip Hamburger in his 2002 book, “Separation of Church and State.”

The vote was 180-7 in favor of the constitutional change; the Senate refused to go along with it.

President Grant had spurred action on the issue with a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, where he spoke in favor of “free schools,” which Catholics felt leaned too far in favor of Protestants.

Supporters saw those schools though as a bulwark against Catholicism, and the hierarchy of Rome.

“The free school is the promoter of that intelligence which is to preserve us as a nation,” Grant said in his speech, going on to cast the division in America as one “between patriotism and intelligence on the one side and superstitions, ambition and ignorance on the other.”

Historians agree that “superstitions” — used on the House floor and here by Grant in his own handwriting – was a code word for Catholics.

While Congress did not change the Constitution on that subject, over 30 states did include limits on such funding for religious schools in their own state charters — most of those provisions still exist today.

A nation that has changed

If Pope Francis could go back through time from the House rostrum, he would see that such anti-Catholic feelings were nothing new in the United States; the original Continental Congress lodged public objections about Rome, worried that “Catholic emigrants from Europe” might overwhelm “Protestant colonies” in the New World.

There was a reason for the line, “No King, no Popery!” in New England during the American Revolution, in which some colonists equated the tyranny of London with the Vatican.

Just over one hundred years later, the phrase “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion,” in the 1884 election for President would again confirm that fears about Catholics were prevalent in American politics.

“Catholic baiting in the 1870s was a political phenomena conducted by Protestant politicians and clergy,” Ward McAfee wrote in a 1996 book about Reconstruction and education reform efforts in the South.

Anti-Catholic political themes continued deep into the 20th century as well – in 1928 when Al Smith became the first major party nominee who was a Catholic, followed by John F. Kennedy in 1960, who became the first Catholic to be elected as President.

Both were accused of secretly planning to turn over the United States to the Pope.

In a famous speech before the 1960 election, Kennedy addressed the issue head on.

  • “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, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference — and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

Looking back 55 years, Kennedy’s election seemed to signal the end of a lengthy political period in the United States that featured friction over Catholics and how they were dealt with by the U.S. political system.

Five years later brought the first papal visit to the United States, when Pope Paul VI met with President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.

Times have changed on Capitol Hill; Catholics now are the largest religious group in the Congress, making up nearly one third of the House and Senate.

And when the Pope stands to speak in the House Chamber, he may catch the eye of the current Chaplain of the House, Father Patrick Conroy, only the second Catholic to hold that position.

Seated behind the Pope will be Speaker John Boehner, who is also Catholic.

Almost 160 years ago, the Speaker was Nathaniel Banks, originally elected as a Know-Nothing, a party that had strong anti-Catholic views.

Times have changed in the American political arena; the Pope’s presence before the U.S. Congress confirms that.

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Jamie Dupree is the Radio News Director of the Washington Bureau of the Cox Media Group and writes the Washington Insider blog. A native of Washington, D.C., Jamie has covered Congress and politics in the nation’s capital since the Reagan Administration, and has been reporting for Cox since 1989.