Al Smith, John F. Kennedy, and Pope Francis

Pope Francis has made headlines for his statements on issues like capitalism, free speech vs. offensive speech, the environment, and same-sex marriage. This week we ask whether the Pope's interventions on political issues represent a legitimate and healthy exercise of religious freedom, or a breach of the norms of church-state separation necessary for democracy to function. 

By: Matthew J. Franck

The questions we confront today, about the authority for Catholics of papal pronouncements and about the propriety of the Catholic hierarchy’s interventions in political controversies, are actually much less fraught with tension about the place of Catholics in American society than such questions once were.
In the mid-twentieth century, the first two Catholic candidates for president both felt the need to respond to Protestant fellow citizens who openly worried about the influence of the Pope on American public life should a Catholic be elected, and about Catholic teaching on the relations of church and state, which they regarded as inimical to American principles of religious freedom. New York’s Governor Al Smith, responding to such concerns in the Atlantic Monthly in May 1927, wrote:   

“In the wildest dreams of your imagination you cannot conjure up a possible conflict between religious principle and political duty in the United States, except on the unthinkable hypothesis, that some law were to be passed which violated the common morality of all God-fearing men. And if you can conjure up such a conflict, how would a Protestant resolve it? Obviously by the dictates of his conscience. That is exactly what a Catholic would do. There is no ecclesiastical tribunal which would have the slightest claim upon the obedience of Catholic communicants in the resolution of such a conflict.”   

Whatever we think of Smith’s assurances, he did not have a chance to make good on them as president. Anti-Catholic prejudice surely played some role in his defeat by Herbert Hoover in 1928, but whether it was decisive is doubtful.   

The next Catholic candidate, who did get elected president, faced similar questions. In a Q&A following his famous speech to Protestant ministers in Houston in August 1960, John F. Kennedy said, “I do not accept the right of any . . . ecclesiastical official, to tell me what I shall do in the sphere of my public responsibility as an elected official,” and a little later added, “no one can direct me in the fulfillment of my duties as a public official under the United States Constitution.” In between these remarks, when confronted with a quotation of Pope John XXIII saying that “Catholics must unite their strength toward the common aid and the Catholic hierarchy has the right and duty of guiding them,” Kennedy said:   

“Guiding them in what area? If you’re talking about in the area of faith and morals . . . I would think any Baptist minister or Congregational minister has the right and duty to try to guide his flock. If you mean that by that statement that the Pope or anyone else could bind me in the fulfillment, by a statement, in the fulfillment of my public duties, I say no.”   

Again we can set aside the question whether Kennedy dealt with the issue altogether well, and observe that the pressure on both him and Smith to rebut any accusations that they would be subject to Rome’s authority was intense for several reasons. Only one of those reasons was raw antipathy to “Papists” or to Catholics as ethnically or socially distinct from their fellow citizens. Another reason was that, unlike American Protestants, American Catholics looked beyond our shores for guidance on faith and morals, and this raised in many Protestants’ minds the specter of foreign, undemocratic influence insinuating itself in our politics. Finally, Catholic doctrines on church-state relations and religious freedom were viewed with suspicion and hostility.   

This landscape was changed by Dignitatis Humanae, the great Declaration on Religious Liberty promulgated in 1965, the final year of the Second Vatican Council. Whether that change was in continuity or discontinuity with historic Catholic doctrine is a matter still debated. But notice that Dignitatis makes an important qualification of its argument right up front:   

“Religious freedom . . . has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.”   

Of course the council fathers claimed no authority to enforce that moral duty on individuals who were not fellow communicants in the Catholic faith. But what did they mean by “traditional Catholic doctrine” being “untouched” in terms of the constraints placed on individuals within the Church?   

For the answer to that question we must turn to Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church promulgated by the council the previous year:   

“In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.”   

And so we come to the present, and to papal pronouncements on Catholic social teaching with respect to marriage, or the economy, or the environment. Are Catholics obliged to conform themselves to the Pope’s stated views on these questions?   

It will depend on what those views are. I do not mean that one may simply accept or reject the Holy Father’s conclusions on the basis of one’s own independent thinking on any question. I mean, as both Kennedy in 1960 and Lumen Gentium in 1964 put it, that if the Pope pronounces judgment on a matter of “faith and morals,” we Catholics are obliged to “adhere to it with a religious assent.” If he offers his considered opinion beyond the realm of faith and morals—on matters of scientific fact or prudent public policy—we owe him our respect but not our assent.

Think of this as a matter of establishing major premises for the conduct of public affairs. On the question of marriage, as on matters of the sanctity of life, the major premises are so morally categorical (marriage is the conjugal union of one man and one woman, and the innocent may never be intentionally killed), and the minor premises so perfunctory (law and public policy should protect the good of marriage and the sanctity of life), that morally compelling conclusions issue from their logic with a self-evidently binding character: Faithful Catholics should speak and act in political life in support of such laws and policies.   

But turn now to the economy or the environment. Complex clusters of major premises launch our reasoning—about justice in market exchanges, solidarity and subsidiarity, charity toward our neighbors, the preferential option for the poor, our stewardship of creation, our responsibility to posterity—and even more intricate minor premises follow, regarding the use of available tools of monetary, fiscal, and regulatory authority in this or that constitutional and legal environment. Drawing conclusions will thus involve subtle consideration of the probable effects of different available policy options. With such a tangle of factual, predictive, and prudential political judgments, how can the Holy Father, even in concert with the hierarchy of bishops as a body, possibly enunciate morally compelling directives governing the speech and actions of the faithful with any binding character? It is difficult to see how he could.   

Should the Pope, our bishops, or for that matter religious leaders in other faith communities, therefore refrain entirely from tackling such complex policy questions? That by no means follows. It is certainly no breach of any “separation of church and state” for religious leaders to engage such questions. And there may be great clarification to be gained of those all-important major premises of a just society, which our religious leaders are particularly (though not uniquely) equipped to elucidate. But it also behooves those leaders to remember that their expertise, and their authority, do not extend to matters of climatology and tax policy.

Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute and a visiting lecturer in Politics at Princeton University. 

This piece was originally authored on February 2, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/7/7/al-smith-john-f-kennedy-and-pope-francis