History will be made Thursday when Pope Francis mounts the rostrum in the House chamber to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. His white robes will contrast with the dark suits of senators and representatives. Observers in the gallery are sure to boast for the rest of their lives that they had been there.
However, it was not that many years ago that the very thought of the leader of the Roman Catholic Church speaking from that platform would have occasioned alarm and precipitated protests that would reverberate off the Jefferson Memorial and be heard in the far reaches of the Deep South. The very word “pope” was equated with the anti-Christ and the Catholic Church reviled as “the whore of Babylon.”
What may not be known is that 189 years ago, the bishop who represented the Catholic Church in North Carolina had been invited to speak from that very location and his lengthy address favorably received. On Jan. 8, 1826, President John Quincy Adams joined members of Congress to listen to Bishop John England who, despite his name, had been born in Ireland. The bishop began what turned out to be a two-hour presentation by noting that he was “the first clergyman of my faith to address this chamber.”
Renowned for his eloquence, over the course of his 22 years as bishop of Georgia and the Carolinas, John England was a resolute apologist for a church widely derided and even feared as the enemy of democracy and freedom. His goal in Washington, as in all his preaching, was to clarify church teaching and to “dispel erroneous understandings.”
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Among those misunderstandings was the belief that the Catholic Church wished to take over the government and to impose its teachings on all citizens. England insisted that “our religion does not prescribe any particular form of government. The pope has no right to interfere with the United States government.” England argued, as have many after him, that there is a clear distinction between spiritual authority and civil authority.
What probably was the clinching argument for the legislators on that Sunday morning was England’s resounding affirmation: “If the Roman Catholic Church was what her detractors say it is, I would not be a Catholic myself.”
Unfortunately, Bishop England’s arguments did not settle the issue. More than a century later, Sen. John F. Kennedy, while running for president, was forced once again to profess the independence of Catholics like himself from church control. In his landmark address to the Houston Ministerial Association in 1960, presidential candidate Kennedy said: “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 a Catholic, how to act.”
Of course, Kennedy was elected and his presidency put to rest, hopefully forever, the fear that the church would attempt to dictate government policy.
As Pope Francis smiles out at a respectful, warmly applauding audience, he is not likely to feel the need to defend the church as did John England. Nor himself, as did John Kennedy. He knows that different points of view characterize a church often faulted for being monolithic. He knows that diversity is represented in the Catholics who serve in government just as it does in the political world in general.
Six of the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are Catholics. In the controversial decision on the Affordable Care Act, three of those Catholic justices voted on each side of the issue. In the religiously sensitive matter of gay marriage, two of those Catholic justices voted in favor of legalizing such unions, even as the Catholic bishops remained opposed.
The same diversity is represented in Congress as well. Both party leaders are Catholics and regularly at loggerheads on a range of issues – John Boehner, the Republican speaker, and Barbara Pelosi, the Democratic leader. Religious affiliation does not determine political positions.
What then will Pope Francis say?
He might draw some themes from that long ago bishop who represented the handful of Catholics then living in North Carolina. Bishop England said that the history of the world shows the limits of the human mind, “perpetually changing its theories; continually adding to its stock of information; frequently detecting its own mistakes; correcting its aberrations.”
One of Bishop England’s “mistakes” was not condemning slavery in his lengthy correspondence with U.S. Secretary of State John Forsyth. Forsyth had said that then Pope Gregory XVI had condemned slavery. England countered that the pope had condemned the slave trade, not the institution of slavery itself.
Certainly Bishop England was influenced in his thinking by his close association with William Gaston of New Bern, the most prominent Catholic in the state. Gaston, who served in the U.S. Congress and also on the North Carolina Supreme Court, gave the commencement address at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1832. Gaston challenged the graduates to work to extirpate slavery, “the worst evil that affects the Southern part of our Confederacy.” Nevertheless, Gaston himself was a slave owner and at his death in 1844 passed them on to his daughter.
Past positions on slavery and numerous other issues might make uncomfortable a church that claims that it never changes. However, I think that the Jesuit Pope Francis could provide an explanation. He would understand what Alexander Stille wrote in a recent issue of The New Yorker: “It is the particular genius of Catholicism that it continues to change while insisting that it has never changed.”
From what he has said and written during the first two years of his pontificate, Pope Francis clearly recognizes, more than did his 19th century predecessors, that our understanding of justice evolves, that human consciousness develops and that “truth” is provisional. Today’s issues, be they global warming, nuclear weapons, terrorism or the rights of refugees, were not the issues when Bishop England, in a time before microphones and Teleprompters, spoke his understanding of truth before the leaders of government.
Nevertheless, some truths are immutable. Some statements are “infallible.” Pope Francis well might conclude his address as did Bishop England:
Thou shalt love thy neighbor… Nothing can excuse us from the discharge of this duty – no difference of country, or of religion….We must all be bound together in amity – for the enjoyment of a lasting happiness in a better world hereafter.
William Powers, a retired professor of sociology, is the author of “Tar Heel Catholics: A History of the Catholic Church in North Carolina.”