The penchant of the Roman Catholic for politics is well known. It extends both to laymen and clerics. The nexus of many a municipal political machine has been a close liaison between parish priest and diocesan bishop, on the one hand, and the boss, on the other. New York City, Boston, and Chicago offer ready examples. In New York City where 80 per cent of the Catholics regularly vote the Democratic ticket, no Protestant would have a chance to be mayor. In Massachusetts, from Boss Curley’s time, the dominant political power has been Roman Catholic. It is axiomatic that no man can be nominated on the Democratic ticket without the nod of Cardinal Cushing. No Protestant could possibly be elected mayor of Chicago today because of the large “Catholic vote.” In 1959 the Mayoral race featured Catholics on both major tickets and another Catholic on a third party ticket.

On the national scene Roman Catholic political power is a formidable front unparalleled by organized Protestantism. The Catholic role has been that of king maker rather than king. While there has been an unwritten rule that the presidential nominee of the Democratic party must not be Catholic, there has been an equally prevailing rule that the chairman of the national committee must always be Catholic.

Now the Catholic genius for politics is taking a new direction. It turns from king-maker to king. It would like, perhaps, to achieve in the nation what it has already achieved in New York, Boston, and Chicago. It is challenging the prevailing rule (disastrously disregarded once) that no major party nominee can be of Roman Catholic faith. A ground swell within this communion advocates abandonment of the traditional taboo. This sentiment converges on Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, whose assets in seeking the Democratic nomination are his youthful charm and his father’s unlimited financial resources.

The Laity Want It

The inspiration beyond the Kennedy drive is lay rather than clerical. Catholic clerics have thrived so notably as political king makers and deployers of political influence that they have seen little need to change the role. They have not forgotten the Al Smith debacle of 1928. Clerics who have traditionally preferred a “cooperative” Protestant to a Catholic in office have been moved by the enthusiasm among the laity. The late Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop William C. Brady, and Bishop John J. Wright all have urged the desirability of a Catholic candidate for President. Cardinal Cushing has long been pleading for Kennedy’s nomination. “Prejudice Has Disappeared,” “Religion No Factor in Election”—so run the headlines. The Jesuit publication America has even argued that the desirable 1960 candidate for President, if not a Catholic, ought to have a Catholic as running mate. This applies to both parties, America contends, for if the Democrats nominate Kennedy, the Republicans will need a Catholic on the ticket to offset Kennedy’s appeal to Catholic voters. Many published comments seem designed to throw an aura of invincibility about a Catholic candidate, as though mere nomination of a Catholic—any Catholic—would assure election.

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The reaction of Protestants to this drive for a Catholic candidate appears confused. It seems to waver between panic, on the one hand, and slobbering sentimentality, on the other. Some Protestants appear determined to vote for a Catholic candidate just to prove how unbigoted and tolerant they are. Others are determined to vote against any nominee who is Catholic just because he is Catholic. One wonders about the sensibility of either attitude. All candidates, of course, should be analyzed on the basis of their record, ability, and integrity. The well-groomed effort to run a Catholic for President is understandable. The Catholic ambition to attain to the Presidency represents an emotional drive. Many Roman Catholics have suffered from inferiority feelings because of immigrant backgrounds and traditionally lower educational and economic statuses. For many Catholics the idea of a fellow member as President undoubtedly represents a “compensation” feeling. Such a distinction would help “prove” to themselves that they really belong. It has been estimated that as high as 85 per cent of Catholic voters might support any Catholic candidate.

Well, Why Not?

Well, why not? Perhaps a Catholic in the White House would contribute to Roman Catholic political maturity. This would be to the good. There is, however, another factor to be considered where a candidate of Roman Catholic faith is concerned. This is the “conflict of interest” issue involving church directives and United States civil practice. The Roman Catholic church claims absolute obedience of its members on all moral and spiritual issues. (This sphere, of course, includes virtually everything, or can be made to.) We must note also that the hierarchy of this church does have a political program for the United States which it is striving by political means to achieve. This political program envisages state subsidies for its educational operations. The hierarchy defines this as a “moral issue” by stating that it involves “freedom of choice” in education for Catholic parents. Practically all the highest leaders of American Catholicism, including the bishops, the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and all official journals, have supported the drive to obtain these subsidies.

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The First Amendment to the Federal Constitution, as repeatedly interpreted by the courts, and the constitutions and statutes of most states, stands squarely athwart this ambition of the church. The whole weight of Catholic Action has been squarely thrown into this struggle to change traditional Church-State pattern in favor of a new arrangement which would bring a billion and a half dollars in tax funds annually into the coffers of the Roman church.

A candidate of Roman Catholic faith is uniquely suspect on this issue. Would he not be inclined, if elected President, to further this subsidy program for his church more than a member of some other denomination in the same office? Would not the Catholic be less inclined to uphold the Constitution and the laws which forbid such expenditures? Would not a Catholic feel morally obligated as a Catholic to favor his church’s clearly articulated program on such an issue?

Catholic Action In Congress

Credence is lent to these fears by such activity as that of Catholic Congressman John W. McCormack (Dem., Mass.) who unabashedly uses his great power as majority leader of the House to secure financial grants for his church. It has been estimated that McCormack is personally responsible for legislation which, under various categories, has brought public funds of more than $30,000,000 to the institutions of his church. As one observer put it: “If a mere Congressman can do what John McCormack has done, what could a President accomplish?”

It should be pointed out, however, that the situation of a Catholic in the White House is substantially different from that of a Catholic in Representative McCormack’s position. McCormack lives among priest-minded Catholics. He needs no Protestant votes, and never gives them a thought. Quite otherwise would be the situation with a President. How well Senator Kennedy realizes this is demonstrated by his Church-State credo proclaimed in Look magazine, March 3, 1959. The senator asserted that his civil responsibilities as an office holder would take precedence over the demands of the leaders of his church, should there be a conflict. He even spelled out this conflict in the specific instance we have cited here. He said that he would uphold the Constitution and the courts’ interpretation of it in the matter of public subsidies to parochial schools. He went still further by saying that in no case would directives of his church “take precedence over (my) oath to uphold the Constitution in all its parts—including the First Amendment and the strict separation of Church and State.”

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These statements are clarifying—even more so than Al Smith’s famous credo in 1928. There remains, nevertheless, this fact—that any Catholic as the nation’s chief executive would be under implicit but sustained pressure from his church where “conflict of interest” is involved. To be sure, every man in the White House operates under pressures. The Catholic official would have all the regular pressures, plus. He would have, in addition, the constant pressure of his church on the school issue, on issues involving birth control, procedures in public hospitals, family welfare measures, and all issues involving “natural law” (that is, Roman Catholic law) and, indeed, on any issue of the church’s choosing. The rather grim aspect of such pressure is the fact that back of it there always lies the silent threat of those terrifying penalties which their church has the power to inflict upon the faithful.

The grave view which the Roman church itself takes on the matter of a layman’s independence is to be noted in its instantaneous critical reaction to the senator’s attempt to proclaim his independence of clerical pressures. Senator Kennedy was almost unanimously assaulted by the Catholic diocesan papers and even by the so-called “laymen’s publication,” Commonweal. There was marked bitterness because of his stand on the church school subsidy. As The Monitor put it, Senator Kennedy will not “succeed in sweeping under the rug the question of a square deal in distribution of tax aid to education.”

Pressure And Counter Pressure

While not so formidable as the pressure from his own church, there would certainly be counter pressures on the Catholic President. There would be prompt Protestant and Jewish resentments were he to appear to be “doing too much for the Catholics.” Publicity as a Catholic Actionist, which Representative McCormack has almost miraculously avoided, would be impossible for a President to escape. Suspicious eyes would be focused on his every act. The hierarchy understand this and have not been eager to have a Catholic in the White House. But now they are committed. They are committed to Kennedy, who, if nominated, will get “the Catholic vote” no matter what the diocesan papers say and no matter who is on the other ticket. They have apparently decided to sacrifice something in the way of financial benefits for the prestige of having a Catholic in the White House.

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This does not mean that a Roman Catholic President would have vetoed such church benefit bills as the nearly $1,000,000 “war damage” bill to refurbish the Pope’s summer palace, or the various “war claims” that have poured millions into the Catholic parishes of the Philippines, or the special benefit bills for Catholic hospitals. It is not inconceivable, however, that a Catholic President might have quietly discouraged such legislation because he would not want to be embarrassed by it. A Protestant such as Mr. Eisenhower, could not do such a thing without being castigated as “anti-Catholic”—a designation which a Catholic President would avoid by definition. Some maneuvering of this kind would actually benefit a Catholic President who could thus gain stature as “being fair.”

The shoe must also be tried on the other foot. If a Roman Catholic as President might be suspect on the matter of “helping the Catholics,” why would not a Protestant as President be suspect in helping the Protestants? The answer is simple: he would not be helping them because there is nothing he could help them with. Protestants have no designs on the public treasury. They are not out for an ambassador to their chief. They are not trying to “get something” from the government as Protestants. So far as “Protestant interests” are concerned no more financial benefit would ensue were a Protestant a President than if an atheist were President.

It does, of course, help the Protestants to have in the office a man of genuine personal faith and holy habits. President Eisenhower’s consistent church attendance has been a stimulus to the church enterprise. But this involves no program of political action and helps Catholic churches as well as Protestant.

Chain Reaction

The stimulus which a Catholic President might lend to Catholic subsidy demands could well be quite indirect. In 1954 Edmund Muskie was elected governor of Maine, the first Catholic to hold the office. Of five major places on his ticket four were filled by Catholics. The Democratic Party in Maine has become identified as the party of Catholic Action. No sooner had Governor Muskie been inaugurated than Bishop Daniel J. Feeney of Maine launched a political attack on Senator Margaret Chase Smith concerning an issue, two years old, over which she had no jurisdiction.

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Shortly after Muskie began his term, demands for bus transportation to Roman Catholic schools at public expense began to echo over the state. In Augusta, priests, angered because their demands were not immediately met, threatened to “dump” 900 parochial pupils on the public schools the following Monday. Governor Muskie was not back of this intemperate drive, but it did develop coincident with his election.

In the state of Washington Albert D. Rosellini was elected governor, the first Catholic to hold that office. Swept in with him were a lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, insurance commissioner, speaker of the House, majority leader of the House, president pro-tem of the Senate, and majority floor leader of the Senate—all of Roman Catholic faith. Campaign literature and marked sample ballots had been handed out in some Catholic churches. Following the election, the Catholic lobby descended on Olympia with a Catholic Action legislative program calling for various kinds of subsidies to parochial schools and a proposal to revise the state constitution so as to remove barriers against the use of public funds for church activities.

In Ohio, the successful campaign of the second Roman Catholic governor in the state’s history, Michael V. DiSalle, quickly benefited his church. Two days before the voting, a Protestant attorney general handed down an opinion which approved placing garbed nuns on the public pay roll as teachers in public schools. Hardly had the new regime taken office when another ruling, rendered by prosecuting Attorney John T. Corrigan of Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), gave the green light to bus transportation to church schools at public expense in that area. These big breaks for parochial schools were not Governor DiSalle’s work, but was his triumph the occasion for them?

Election of David Lawrence as the first Roman Catholic governor of Pennsylvania was followed by demands for revision of the state constitution to make possible use of public funds for sectarian hospitals. A movement supported by “citizens’ committees” was clamoring for a further constitutional amendment which would permit parochial bus transportation at public expense. In Colorado the victory of Stephen L. R. McNichols as the first Roman Catholic governor had as one of its first consequences a bill for transportation to parochial schools supported by tax funds.

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Would the election of a Catholic as chief executive set off a chain reaction of Catholic demands throughout the nation?

Collateral Results

There could be further collateral results that would not make Protestants happy. Catholic Action would undoubtedly attempt to parlay the first Catholic nominee (in either the first or second place) into a concept of religious “parity” on major tickets. This concept has already been established in New York where, in 1958, the logical nominee, Finletter, had to be passed over because the Protestant, Harriman, had to have a Catholic running mate on the ticket. So the implication well be made that in order to present a “balanced” ticket there must be a Catholic in one of the places. Catholic Action has worked hard and long to achieve this concept in the military chaplaincy. With only about 25 per cent of the personnel they are now within sight of attaining 50–50 parity in the top jobs. The idea is gaining that either the chief or his deputy must always be Catholic.

Still another result which Protestants fear in a Catholic President is a sympathetic explosion of public displays of the Roman Catholic faith. Most Catholic politicians do not seem to understand the subtleties of a system like ours. They dote on public demonstrations of their denominational symbols and observances. Roman Catholicism is a majority faith in many areas of this country. As a majority faith Catholics frequently show insensitivity to the religious sensibilities of those who do not share their faith. They may flaunt their religious practices and virtually force them on the entire community. They have an astonishing faculty for never suspecting that the symbol or observance which inspires them may be shocking and abhorrent to persons of another faith.

A Catholic Actionist in an official position may arrange for a denominational statue to be placed in a public site—on the highway, on the river, in a park. Catholic Actionists of the Holy Name Society have embarked upon a program to dedicate various branches of the United States armed forces to patron saints of their denomination—St. Maurice, St. Barbara, St. Michael, St. Sebastian and so forth. No doubt they were amazed at the hostility their program evoked among service men. A Catholic Actionist in charge of a satellite launching attached to it a sectarian medal to publicize his church. In various areas where they predominate, Catholics have seized control of the public schools, staffed them with nun teachers and introduced the catechism and practices of the Roman Church.

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Catholic Actionists who head departments seem to regard it as a part of their religious practice to load the department with their co-religionists. This is a performance which Protestants neither duplicate nor comprehend. Finally, as we have already seen, the election of a Roman Catholic to a responsible post tends to send his co-religionists rushing to the legislature with a pack of subsidy bills for their church.

It is an immature concept of public function which Protestants fear in a Catholic President. They fear, too, a daily circus of priests and nuns parading in full regalia in and out of the White House to the accompaniment of endless photos on the front pages, the back pages, and the middle pages. Many of these matters involve no exercise of presidential prerogatives at all. They are matters of taste, matters of restraint on the part of the Roman Catholic church and its press agents. This is a large area in which Catholics, both lay and clerical, have much to learn. Evidence that they have learned and are learning would ease the ways to fulfillment of what is apparently a consuming Catholic ambition—a Roman Catholic President.


C. Stanley Lowell is Managing Editor of Church State Review and Associate Director of Protestants and Other Americans United. A Methodist clergyman, he holds the B.A. degree from Asbury College, M.A. from Duke, and B.D. from Yale Divinity School. His article in Christianity Today, “The Rising Tempo of Rome’s Demands,” reached a million people.

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