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A Catholic in the White House:
The Protestant Fears of Bishop Pike

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The year 1960 promises to begin a new era in national thought on the subject of Church and State relations in America. Stimulated by their hopes or fears, writers in every religious tradition have undertaken to show why it would be good, or bad, for a Catholic to be in the White House. About a dozen major religious bodies have expressed their judgment in formal resolutions that range over the whole scale of public opinion, from the highly critical Southern Baptists to the mild and almost approving Augustana Lutherans.

But all this writing about the presidency is only symbolic of a deeper issue that needs to be brought to the surface. It has implications which transcend the immediate question of whether all but Catholic citizens are protected by the Constitution, that “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The issue is nothing less than the status of Catholicism before the law and the right of its members to share in the common formulation of national policy.

Our immediate concern is with the highly publicized statements of James A. Pike, Episcopalian bishop of California. His spate of articles, TV programs and a full-length book against a “Catholic for President” (Roman Catholic in the White House) give us the most intelligent defense of a strange thesis, that Catholic principles are compatible with the American way of life and therefore debar those who profess them at least from the highest political office in the land.

However, instead of defending the Catholic position by answering Pike directly, I prefer to take the bishop at his word that he is not prejudiced but has examined the whole matter thoroughly and arrived at his conclusions only after long study and thought. If this is true, Bishop Pike is speaking for millions of others who are less vocal and persuasive, but who share his negative convictions about the role of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Subordination of Church to State

According to Pike, there are three possible views of Church and State relationship, which may be tagged “State over Church,” as in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia’ “Church over State,” as the papacy is said officially to teach; and “God and Conscience over both” that Pike derives from Luther through Tillich and favors as the authentic Protestant principle which the Founding Fathers had imbedded in the American Constitution.

In the first view, that the State is superior to the Church and the latter, in a showdown, is subject to political authority, Pike makes no reference to antecedents of this theory of Erastianism.

As propounded by the Zwinglian Thomas Lieber (Erastus), the Old Testament serves as a model for civil society. “I see no reason,” said Erastus, “why the Christian magistrate at the present day should not possess the same power which God commanded the magistrate to exercise in the Jewish commonwealth. Do we imagine that we are able to contrive a better constitution of Church and State than that?” Erastian views were eagerly taken up by eminent English divines who considered them part of the structure of civil and religious law. To this day, Article 37 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Communion declares that the political sovereign has supreme authority over all ecclesiastical persons and in all Church causes within his or her dominions.

Pike shows himself little embarrassed by the Erastianism which his coreligionists have placed in the stream of English juridical thought and passed on to the States. There is only a wistful regret that many, if not most, Americans think along these lines. “It is well known to every clergyman,” presumably of the Protestant persuasion, “that many of his people feel that their country is their final allegiance and that, if they were ever forced to choose between their State and their Church, they would follow the State.” This damaging confession explains why the churches have so few “potential martyrs” today. No wonder, if their members generally accept the view that the claims of the State are really superior to those of the Church. Thomas à Becket, John Fisher and Thomas More were Englishmen, but they were not in the Anglican tradition.

Supremacy of Ecclesiastical Power

At the other extreme to Erastianism is a theory of Church and State relations that Pike saddles on the Roman papacy. Dipping into medieval history we are shown the picture of Henry IV kneeling in the snow at Canossa in 1077, and five centuries later the ill-starred excommunication of Queen Elizabeth of England by St. Pius V.

This claim of the Church’s superiority is apparently not archaic. Only recently the Sicilians were ordered by ecclesiastical authority not to support the Christian Social Union party under penalty of deprivation of the sacraments. Pike admits the party was not a good one. But that is beside the point. “The point is that even today papal decrees are still implemented in this fashion, and this reflects ‘Church-over-State’ thinking.”

The argument is played from every angle. What Pike calls the “official position” of Rome says that Church will grant equality to other religious views where it is forced to do so by its minority status. But once numerically simple enough, “it has a positive duty to shape the State to suit its own ends.” Unofficially another theory is reportedly gaining ground, and Protestants take comfort from those who debunk the idea of a Catholic State or the use of political power as instrumental to further the Church’s spiritual interests.

It is natural at this point to slip into defensive gear. The apologetics are familiar. Non-Catholics accuse the Church of following a double standard: religious freedom for everyone, as long as Catholics are dependent on public policy for subsistence, but, once they become dominant, civil laws will be changed to restrict the freedom of all but members of the Catholic body. To disarm the opposition, therefore, a theory must be worked out in which the Church presses no claim to juridical instrumentalities in her favor, but in relation to the State looks only to the psychological impacts of her wisdom and the spiritual influence of her people.

In modern times, and certainly in the United States, this theory has great merit and the present writer would like to see it widely diffused. No doubt many critics of the Church would be satisfied to rest the case here; they have no quarrel with Catholicism if it demands no special privileges from the government over other religious bodies. But Pike represents a school of criticism that is more consistent and, in my opinion, more widespread than is generally recognized.

He meets the issue head on, with a frankness and clarity that deserve our respect. In context the watch-word is “primacy of the spiritual” as against “primacy of the political.” On which Pike makes this sage observation:

For those who accept the Protestant principle, “the primary of the spiritual” is a judgment on both Church and State, whereas for a Roman Catholic it would generally appear that his Church is finally determinative as to spiritual mattes since for the Roman Catholic there is a simple identification between the visible Church and the Kingdom of God. Hence, in the last analysis, Church is still over State. The Roman Catholic may say, and quite sincerely, that with regard to these possible conflicts his conscience will be his guide; but it is his Church which is the ultimate mentor of his conscience.

What he means is that fundamentally it makes little difference whether the Catholic Church calls on the political power to advance her own welfare, or restrains herself to use only moral influence on her members, and through them on others, in matters affecting the State. The basic irritant in either case remains, namely, the Church’s dogmatic position that she is vice-gerent of God and, through the papacy and hierarchy, commissioned to interpret the laws of God to the human race.

God and Conscience Over Church and State

Pike has done Catholics a service by helping to clarify what he calls the Protestant principle on Church and State, where only God (or conscience) is regarded as final, and therefore “all earthly institutions, ecclesiastical and civil, are under judgment.”

He traces the principle to Martin Luther who, when he said, “Here I stand; I can do no other,” was standing in “the true prophetic tradition,” and opposed to both Church and state in the name of God and of his own individual conscience, which he felt was enlightened by the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Spirit.

It is immaterial to Pike that Luther radically changed his position as soon as he found a State that was willing to stand beside him. At the “historic moment: of his appeal to conscience, he became the spokesman for a theory that alone is authentic Protestantism and, by its very nature, contrary to Catholic teaching.

In this theory conscience is the supreme arbiter of all things human, as the founders of the American Republic clearly recognized. “Dissent is in our best tradition, and the Bill of Rights is evidence that this is a nation founded on the principle that the claims of God and conscience can be a man’s highest allegiance,” higher than the State as a political society, and higher than any Church which, in spite of its claims, is only a human institution.

Is there no freedom, then, to allow the Church to shape or determine my conscience? Is my subjective interpretation of God’s will the ultimate norm of right and wrong, and per se independent of both State and the Church? Yes, according to Pike. Occasionally a churchman will speak up to the State on religious and ethical grounds. And what he says may also coincide with the official position of the Church he represents. “But this does not mean that ‘built in’ to our national allegiance is the freedom—either of an individual or of a religious body—to give to another entity a higher priority than that given to one’s conscience, whether this entity be nation or Church—or a combination of both, as in the case of the Vatican.”

Given this premise, therefore, that every Church, including the Catholic, is only a human creation, then, clearly, it must be judged (no less than the State) at the bar of reason operating on moral matters. If the deity has never spoken supernaturally to mankind or, if He spoke, never communicated His revelation to a divinely founded society for custody and interpretation, then, surely, without arrogance no Church may pose as the teacher of man’s conscience or claim, in the name of God, the right to instruct her members beyond what their own reason (perhaps illumined by the indwelling Spirit) dictates.

Minor Issues

In comparison with this basic principle of the supremacy of conscience, which is divine, over all man-made societies like Church and State, other objections raised by Protestant critics are definitely minor. Pike singles out three and does a masterful job in showing how secondary is every consideration except the one of private judgment upon every creation of human solidarity.

The problem of allegiance to a foreign power is ties in with the alleged ambitions of the Vatican à la Blanshard, for political domination through a Catholic in the White House. For many Protestants this is their main preoccupation. They fear a Catholic President because he will be the tool of Rome, working for the Pope and welding a chain of influence to enslave the American people.

What complicates the issue is the position of Vatican State as a political sovereignty, and the fact that Catholics owe implicit obedience to the Holy See in matters of faith and morals. But Pike is willing to transmit this difference between Catholics and, say, the Anglicans in their relation to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Assuming the maximum of devotion to the Pope on the part of a Roman Catholic political official, in his mind his allegiance is not of a different character (though perhaps greater in intensity) than the loyalty in the case of Episcopalians. In other words, allegiance to Papal authority is part of his religion, not part of his political thinking or commitments. He doubtless knows that the Pope is also sovereign of an area much smaller than Brooklyn; but it is not to that miniscule nation nor to its sovereign that he directs his allegiance.

The question of diplomatic representation to the Vatican belongs in the same category, with a slightly different accent. Those who object to such representation are making a mountain out of a mole hill, in Pike’s opinion. He suggests taking the Vatican as a combination of Church and State, and then treating each element separately. If the United States sent a diplomatic representative to the Vatican as a political state, the only justifiable complain would be that we are not receiving benefits proportionate to the money spent—which is debatable. And if the nation sent an ambassador to the Pope as head of an important religion, even this would not be too bad, provided similar arrangements were made for representation to the leaders of other American faiths.

Federal aid to parochial schools seems to be more fundamental, but actually is no different from the bogey of Vatican imperialism or the prejudice of a legation to the Papal court. Why do Protestants object to government subsidy or, as Pike prefers, federal aid to parochial schools? Some are against the idea because they feel that the public school is the only type of education to be encouraged in American life. But, answers Pike, “If one takes this position he can not rely too heavily on historical American principles, since public schools came o the scene rather late, and were not intended to occupy the entire educational field.”

Others admit on ideological grounds that this country would be better off with a pluralistic school system, like that of Scotland with its Church of Scotland, Episcopal Church, Roman Catholic, and secular schools, all supported by the government. However, while recognizing the democratic legitimacy of this position, they are against it for pragmatic reasons, namely, that the adoption of such a scheme wold work in favor of one Church to the disadvantage of Protestant denominations.

Consequently Pike is willing to sustain federal aid to parochial schools in spite of both objections: in spite of the first because it is contrary to the historical traditions of the country, and in spite of the second because it looks more like envy than logic and, in any case, Catholics differ among themselves on the prudence of receiving government grants for their schools, and a Catholic President may well reflect the non expedit position.

Heart of the Problem

We now come to what Pike isolates as the crucial issue and, therefore, the basis for objecting to the election of a Catholic President. It is certainly not the international aims of the Vatican, which an emissary of Rome would promote as supreme executive. There is no evidence that the Pope wants to “take over America.” It is also not the danger that Washington will go to Rome in the person of an ambassador, to the detriment of the American people. Such liaisons exist between Rome and a score of other nations with no ostensible harm to their citizens. It is not even the fear that a Catholic President would use his authority to promote the financial support of Catholic institutions, especially schools, since he might reasonably do this in a democracy (as they do elsewhere), while affording the same privileges to other denominations.

The heart of the problem is the divergent concept of the ultimate source of religious and moral certitude, the one Catholic and the other, according to Pike, authentically Protestant. In other words, it is not really a question of Church and State relations but the relation of man to God.

According to the Catholic faith, Christ founded the Church as man’s teacher and guide on the road to salvation. Catholics are not only free but obliged to follow their conscience in the practice of virtue and avoidance of sin’ yet they also believe that this conscience is not self-sufficient. It needs light and direction form God, whose visible representative on earth is the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. In rare instances a conflict may arise between a man’s conscience and the Church’s teaching, as might happen with a poorly instructed Catholic. But in the normal course of events, given ordinary willingness to remain faithful to Catholic principles, when a conflict arises it will not be between conscience and the Church, but between the Church’s teaching and what the Catholic knows in conscience is passion, or pride, or sinful self-advantage.

A Catholic will not draw a dichotomy between conscience and his Church’s authoritative teaching. He accepts the latter as normative, along with reason, for his faith and conduct in the affairs of daily life. If in certain difficult questions he is sure of the Church’s stand, he is willing to believe that God is faithful to His promises, and therefore the Church He founded is teaching the truth, even when he does not see on purely rational grounds, the full cogency of the doctrine taught.

Quite different is the postulate of Bishop Pike. Taking his stand on Luther’s principle of self-determination and Tillich’s existentialism, he states without scruple that no society, political or ecclesiastical, has ultimate right to pass judgment on man’s individual conscience; that, on the contrary, the final arbiter is man’s reason, personally enlightened by the Spirit in Luther’s theology and almost identified with the Spirit in Tillich’s philosophy.

Seen in this light, the issue that Pike raises and the reason he is opposed to a Catholic President are nothing trivial. This is evident from the attention he pays to the birth-control question, which some have said is irrelevant to the matter at hand. It is highly relevant, and Pike should be given credit for bringing it into the open.

Many Protestants believe the safety of the world’s future depends on a solution now of two “explosion” problems—nuclear and population. And even if some way is found to eliminate the former, the safety of the world may be gravely imperiled by the later. Apart from the merits of their argument, if they are ***missing word******** “in conscience,” as Pike would say, that artificial contraception is licit and, in fact, imperative for Americans at home and exportation abroad, they will resist any attempt by any society to tell them otherwise. Therefore, implicit in their reluctance to accept a Catholic chief executive is the fear that he will, even unwittingly, promote Catholic standards of morality that run counter to what they have come to believe their conscience tells them is right.

Two Views of Catholicism

If anything defies analysis, it is the American Protestant mind that covers the whole field of doctrine and moral practice. But in its attitude toward the Catholic Church, two different views are taking shape under the impact of the current presidential campaign. One view sees the Church as a power structure, bent on exploiting every means to conquer the world for Rome and place it, in Harnack’s phrase, under the tyranny of a papal king. In this view, a Catholic President would be a Roman puppet taking orders from Pope John, or at least so divided in his allegiance that the citizens could never trust him not to betray their country in favor of the Catholic religion.

The other view is not so shallow. As vocalized by the Episcopalian Bishop of California, the real objection to John F. Kennedy is the theology of the Church to which he belongs. Pike and the millions (I believe) who think like him are not afraid he will deliberately abuse his office to advance the cause of Catholicism. They are concerned, however, that whenever he decides on matters affecting Protestant (or non-Catholic) interests, the source of his judgment will be not merely his own, privately formed and politically pliable reason, but a conscience informed by a society which he believes endowed with divine infallibility. And, more seriously, they fear that this Church’s principles may somehow, even remotely, enter national policy in opposition to what Protestants believe or what they commonly practice in the name of private inspiration and absolute freedom of thought.

Thirty years ago Al Smith expressed the hope that “never again in this land will any public servant be challenged because of the faith in which he has tried to walk humbly with his God.” That hope has not been realized. But now the issues are more clear. For many Americans not of the Catholic faith, the prospect of a Catholic President offers the challenge of re-examining their religious convictions and asking themselves whether ultimate spiritual values are based on human autonomy or on a revelation taught by a living society instituted by the Son of God.

Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Vol. 60 - #12, Sept. 1960, pp. 7

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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