Catholics in politics

It is very quiet, and nobody talks about it, but a major shift is occurring in the collective approach of Catholic politicians and Catholic voters to issues unacceptable in Catholic morality such as abortion and same-sex marriage, and it is a generational matter.

Catholicism always has faced criticism in America, although some times have been better than others. Decade after decade, Catholic Americans have lived their lives according to their beliefs but often have had to swim upstream.

Certainly one of the worst times, if not the worst time, in this history was the period, roughly speaking, between the end of World War I and the coming of World War II.

Today much attention is given to this country’s policy regarding immigrants. Immigration was a major concern around 1920. Congress passed laws that restricted entry into this country, and the laws had decidedly anti-Catholic overtones. Entry was determined on the basis of what was called “quotas.” In practice, immigrants from Britain, predominantly Protestant, could come in numbers, but the quota for Eastern Europeans, often Catholics, hardly was as generous.

(To be fair, it also hit Jews, Muslim Arabs and Asians.)

More than a few states had “convent inspection laws” enabling police to walk into Catholic convents unannounced to search for all the nefarious things that happened in convents, if you believed anti-Catholic propaganda, and many did.

Attempts were made to shut down Catholic schools. Laws were proposed to deny Catholic priests and nuns the right to wear distinctive garb in public.

It all came to a head in the fall of 1928 when the Democrats nominated a devout Catholic, New York’s Gov. Alfred E. Smith, for president. Smith lost — dismally. His defeat confirmed many Catholic fears. They dared not provoke the Protestant majority. Simply to survive, Catholics adopted this attitude. Just let us do our thing, and we will not interfere in what you do.

Change began to come in March 1933. Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House. A lifelong Episcopalian, he had impeccable Protestant credentials, but New York politics, in which he got his start and in which he thrived, meant that he had to work with Catholics, and with Jews for that matter.

He reached out to Catholics, big time, unprecedented, naming Catholic federal judges, appointing Catholics to his cabinet, overseeing the hiring of Catholics for government jobs, and he went out of his way to charm Catholics, being the first U.S. president, for example, to address a convocation at the University of Notre Dame.

Cardinals Patrick Hayes of New York and George Mundelein of Chicago were his good friends.

But Catholics still remained on guard. Do not aggravate the majority.

Today’s older Catholic politicians, Catholics by identity but unwilling to assert Catholic teachings in their political actions, are the children of Catholic men and women of that era.

John F. Kennedy was an example. His father and grandfather had faced bitter anti-Catholicism in their own political careers. He felt that he could not antagonize Protestants.

Interestingly, however, his presidential election in 1960 convinced many Catholic Americans that they were as patriotic as anybody, and that their religion was no threat to this democracy. The Second World War, in which millions of Catholics gave their all, and many died, also changed the equation.

The children of this later generation, many of today’s Catholic politicians, are more apt to connect their religious beliefs with their politics.

Such is history.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.