As of Jan. 20, a new U.S. president will have taken office. Over history, the relationship between the president at the time and the institutional Catholic Church has varied.
Thomas Jefferson, who served from 1801-09, had the most exposure to the Catholic Church among the nation’s early leaders. He was ambassador to France when Catholicism dominated French life. In Paris, he sent his daughters to a convent school, but when one of them declared her wishes to be a Catholic and become a nun, he put his foot down.
John Tyler, in office from 1841-45, was married to Julia Gardiner Tyler, a proper Virginia Episcopalian aristocrat, who became a Catholic.
James K. Polk, in office from 1845-49, admitted Catholic priests as military chaplains. He initiated diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
Andrew Johnson followed Abraham Lincoln. Johnson’s political career coincided with a particularly strong anti-Catholicism. Always, boldly, he championed the rights of Catholics. He often attended Mass, sent his children to Catholic schools, and one daughter joined the Church. A legend is that she baptized him on his deathbed.
Woodrow Wilson, in office from 1913-21, was the son of a Presbyterian minister. Many presumed him to be less than excited about the Catholic Church, but when he visited Italy after the First World War, he asked to be received, and he was received, by Pope Benedict XV.
The president friendliest to the Church and to Catholics was Franklin D. Roosevelt, an Episcopalian, who served from 1933-45. He appointed Catholics to high federal offices. Catholics were his closest associates. Cardinals, bishops and priests were his bosom friends. He created a formal relationship, although not diplomatic relations, with the Holy See.
FDR had a “feel” for Catholics. Once he went to his retreat, Warm Springs, Georgia, for Holy Week and Easter. He told Catholics on his staff to go to Atlanta, because Atlanta had Catholic churches with Holy Week services. (Warm Springs had no Catholic church.) If he needed them, he said, they could get to him quickly.
Succeeding Roosevelt was Harry S. Truman. From a solid Protestant background, Truman served in the First World War in a unit with a priest from Kansas City as chaplain. The priest and Truman became close friends for life. Truman greatly admired Pope Pius XII and, in 1951, attempted to open full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Anti-Catholicism stopped that in its tracks.
The only Roman Catholic president was John F. Kennedy, who served from 1961-63. When he ran for office, he faced a wave of bigotry. No disagreement occurred between his presidential policy and Catholic doctrine. He faithfully attended Sunday Mass. He upset Protestants twice. Visiting Mexico City, he went to the Shrine of Guadalupe. When Pope St. John XXIII died, Kennedy sent no less than Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson to the funeral.
Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, long was attracted to Catholicism. After retiring in 1969, he began to attend Mass, eventually daily. He was buried in a Catholic ritual by a priest. His daughter did convert.
Ronald Reagan, son of a Catholic, never a Catholic himself, established diplomatic relations with the Holy See and worked with Pope St. John Paul II to eliminate communism. His first wife was a Catholic. Their children were brought up as Catholics.
Barack Obama promoted abortion and same-gender marriage, but he also advocated health care for the poor, long a Church imperative.
The first of Donald Trump’s three wives, Ivana Zelníčková, was reared a Catholic. Their three children were not.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.