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
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 Churchs
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
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 Churchs 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 Churchs 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
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 mans 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 Gods 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 freedomeither of an individual or of a religious
bodyto give to another entity a higher priority than that given to ones conscience,
whether this entity be nation or Churchor 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 mans 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.
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
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 Pikes 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 spentwhich 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
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
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 mans 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 mans conscience and the Churchs 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 Churchs 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 Churchs 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 Churchs 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
Quite different is the postulate of Bishop Pike. Taking his stand on Luthers
principle of self-determination and Tillichs existentialism, he states without
scruple that no society, political or ecclesiastical, has ultimate right to
pass judgment on mans individual conscience; that, on the contrary, the final
arbiter is mans reason, personally enlightened by the Spirit in Luthers theology
and almost identified with the Spirit in Tillichs 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 worlds future depends on a solution
now of two explosion problemsnuclear 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
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
Harnacks 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 Churchs 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