The creed of an American Catholic politician

The most famous public controversy over the issue in the first half of the twentieth century was the exchange of letters between an Episcopalian layman, Charles C. Marshall, and Alfred E. Smith, the Catholic Governor of New York State and later Democratic candidate for President of the United States. [For background, see James H. Smylie, "The Roman Catholic Church, the State and Al Smith," Church History 29 (1960) 321-43; Thomas J. Shelley, What the Hell is an Encyclical?: Governor Alfred E. Smith, Charles C. Marshall, Esq., and Father Francis P. Duffy, U.S. Catholic Historian 15 (1997) 87-107; see also Francis L. Broderick, "When Last a Catholic Ran for President," Social Order (May 1960) 198-210.] Marshall initiated the exchange in April, 1927, with an open letter in The Atlantic Monthly. [Charles C. Marshall, "An Open Letter to the Honorable Alfred E. Smith," The Atlantic Monthly 139 (April, 1927) 540-49, reprinted in his book, Governor Smith's American Catholicism (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1928) 44-70.] He began with "a note of doubt, a sinister accent of interrogation" caused by the irreconcilability of conceptions Smith shared with other Catholics with the Constitution of the U.S. Not superficial features of Catholic thought, these concepts were "derived from the basic political doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church" that has committed her "to that intolerance that has disfigured so much of her history." She defines dogmatic intolerance as her sacred duty and at best will allow a State to tolerate, "by favor, but not by right," other religions.
The "irrepressible conflict" arises in mixed matters, where though both Church and State are involved, the Church claims final jurisdiction. This conflicts with the Supreme Court's decision that assigns the final decision to the State which may intervene when religious practices are "inconsistent with the peace and safety of the State." Marshall spelled out these conflicts in a series of contrasts between what the American Constitution permits or requires and what modern Popes have claimed. He then illustrated the conflict with several particular examples: the education of youth, marriage jurisprudence, the call by an American Catholic for U.S. action to preserve the Church's rights in Mexico, and Leo XIII's inflaming of ancient tensions by beatifying a Catholic objector under Queen Elizabeth. Marshall concluded:
Nothing will be of greater satisfaction to those of your fellow citizens who hesitate in their endorsement of your candidacy because of the religious issues involved than such a disclaimer by you of the convictions here imputed, or such an exposition by others of the questions here presented, as may justly turn public opinion in your favor.
Smith replied to Marshall in the next issue of the magazine. [Alfred E. Smith, "Catholic and Patriot: Governor Smith Replies," The Atlantic Monthly, 139 (May, 1927), 721-28, reprinted in Progressive Democracy: Addresses and State Papers of Alfred E. Smith (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1928) 254-69.] Disclaiming any canonical or theological expertise, he said that he had received assistance in writing his reply from Father Francis P. Duffy, the famous chaplain of the 165th Regiment in World War I and a former professor at the New York Seminary. Smith vigorously denied that in his twenty-five years of public service there had ever been any conflict between his official duties and his faith. After affirming his belief that public education is "one of the foremost functions of government," he expressed his inability to understand "how anything that I was taught to believe as a Catholic could possibly be in conflict with what is good citizenship;" and he urged an end to quarreling "over dogmatic principles" and "the bickering among our sects" lest young people lose all interest in religion whatever.
After these and other general illustrations of the compatibility of Catholicism with public service, Smith turned to Marshall's specific questions. He corrected his misinterpretation of the meaning of dogmatic intolerance, which affects only the Church's attitude towards Catholics themselves. He questioned Marshall's right to "ask me to assume responsibility for every statement that may be made in any encyclical letter," pointing out that such documents are not "articles of faith":
The Syllabus of Pope Pius IX, which you quote on the possible conflict between Church and State, is declared by Cardinal Newman to have "no dogmatic force." You seem to think that Catholics must be all alike in mind and in heart, as though they had been poured into and taken out of the same mould. You have no more right to ask me to defend as part of my faith every statement coming from a prelate than I should have to ask you to accept as an article of your religious faith every statement of an Episcopal bishop, or of your political faith every statement of a President of the United States. So little are these matters of the essence of my faith, that I, a devout Catholic since childhood, never heard of them until I read your letter.
Smith went on to quote Msgr. Ryan and Father Pohle on the obligation of Catholics to accept religious tolerance in a religiously pluralistic society. To their names he then added those of Cardinals O'Connell and Gibbons and of Archbishops Ireland and Dowling, concluding from their words his right to "stand squarely in support of the provisions of the Constitution which guarantee religious freedom and equality." Reminding Marshall that his faith also acknowledged the distinct spheres of Church and State, he asked him:
What is this conflict about which you talk? It may exist in some lands which do not guarantee religious freedom. But in the wildest dreams of your imagination you cannot conjure up a possible conflict between religious principle and political duty in the United States, except on the unthinkable hypothesis that some law were to be passed which violated the common morality of all God-fearing men. And if you can conjure up such a conflict, how would a Protestant resolve it? Obviously by the dictates of his conscience. That is exactly what a Catholic would do. There is no ecclesiastical tribunal which would have the slightest claim upon the obedience of Catholic communicants in the resolution of such a conflict.
And in support of these claims, he again quoted Gibbons, Ireland, and England on a Catholic's right in conscience to resist even the Pope were he to act beyond his competence.
After brief replies to Marshall's cases of conflict in education and marriage jurisprudence, Smith pointed out that the U.S. Bishops had explicitly rejected the imputation that their defense of the rights of the Church in Mexico were a call for armed intervention. He ended with a sort of confession of faith:
I summarize my creed as an American Catholic. I believe in the worship of God according to the faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. I recognize no power in the institutions of my Church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the laws of the land. I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and in equality for all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor. I believe in the absolute separation of Church and State and in the enforcement of the provisions of the Constitution that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. I believe that no tribunal of any church has any power to make any decree of any force in the law of the land, other than to establish the status of its own communicants within its own church. I believe in the support of the public school as one of the corner stones of American liberty. I believe in the right of every parent to choose whether his child shall be educated in the public school or in a religious school supported by those of his own faith. I believe in the principle of noninterference by this country in the internal affairs of other nations and that we should stand steadfastly against any such interference by whomsoever it may be urged. And I believe in the common brotherhood of man under the common fatherhood of God.
In this spirit I join with fellow Americans of all creeds in a fervent prayer 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.
Marshall published a rejoinder immediately after Smith's reply was released. [ See Marshall, Governor Smith's American Catholicism, 72-84.] He could not accept Smith's statement that Catholics did not hold the views Marshall had attributed to them. He cited in evidence a Manual of Christian Doctrine, published in 1926 by John Joseph McVey with an imprimatur of the Archbishop of Philadelphia. In it the Pope was taught to have "the right to annul those laws or acts of government that would injure the salvation of souls or attack the natural rights of citizens, while the State was said to have the right and duty to proscribe schism or heresy, but that "dissenting worships" could be tolerated when they have "acquired a sort of legal existence consecrated by time and accorded by treaties or covenants." Marshall argued that, therefore, Catholics were still being taught principles incompatible with the American Constitution.
Later Marshall also cited Hilaire Belloc's statement that "the Roman Catholic Church is, in its root-principle, at issue with the civic definitions of freedom and authority." In his final paragraph he expressed his hope for the future:
In closing, let me say with the greatest emphasis that no view I have expressed has been intended to suggest the placing of a ban against candidacy for office because of religion. The way out lies by no such unhappy path; and your disclaimer is my voucher for this assertion. It is often said your venerable Church never changes, but history proves this is not true. There is transforming religion within her as well as confining polity. In spite of the latter, imposing indeed is her store of the riches of grace, piety and devotion. She may be encumbered at present with the undiscarded traditions of mediaevalism, but she is alert to the call of her divine Master. May your disclaimer mark the beginning of the era when that Church may so redress her historic claim that the whole Christian world may be one with her and her polity be brought into harmony with the modern State.
The idea that this new era might be opening dominated the long essay Marshall then wrote for the book in which he published his open letter and rejoinder. [ Marshall, Governor Smith's American Catholicism, 1-43.] In the U.S. Smith's reply had reassured his fellow citizens that "in his discharge of the highest civic trust from the American people he would never allow his loyalty to his Church to conflict with his loyalty to the State, as the State (not the Church) defined such loyalty." But the exchange had also attracted interest elsewhere; in Europe Smith's reply was seen as evidence "that in the New World a Roman Catholic statesman of intrepid spirit had set forth convictions in respect to the relation of his Church to the State that, to the European mind, were in flat conflict with the decrees of 1870, and what the Popes had asserted and the Church had practiced as integral in religious faith since that date,--and there was neither denial, rebuke nor admonition from ecclesiastical authority."
In the U.S., Marshall went on, Smith's reply was seen as evidence of "the existence of something that was curiously designated as 'American Catholicism,'" which, as Walter Lippmann had noted, revealed no differences from Protestantism on the relation between religion and secular matters. While welcoming the effect of public validation of Smith's candidacy, Marshall repeated his fear that the principles of 1870, the Vatican Council's statements about papal primacy and infallibility, remained in force and continued to imply papal jurisdiction over the State in mixed matters. It remained that "a civic community or State motivated in moral matters through a Roman Catholic solidarity by an ecclesiastical government at Rome differs radically from one motivated by the Civic Primacy of its people within the State." He pointed out the contradictions between Smith's concluding statement of beliefs and the official teachings of the modern Popes.
Marshall then went on to speak of the international echoes of Smith's reply which, he said, had attracted press-interest in France, England, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Australia, China and Ceylon! He took specific note of French interest, in the context of the papal condemnation of Action franaise, in Smith's letter as "the contribution of American Catholic thought as to what the doctrine and dogma of the Church ought to be, if not what it is." The French journal, L'Europe Nouvelle, had published Smith's letter in full, reading it as in flat contradiction to the Syllabus of Pius IX and as related to Montalembert's liberal Catholicism and to the traditional liberties claimed by the Gallican Church. The French newspaper saw Smith's position as a denial of the indirect power of the Church in secular matters; it wondered if the American Church enjoyed a derogation of the law that European Catholics felt obliged to obey. Marshall himself noted how anomalous it would be for the Church "if its membership in the United States could develop for itself an American Catholicism that involved a departure from the universal doctrine of the Church." What was needed to clarify the issue, he concluded, was for the Church's highest authority to issue "an authoritative declaration as to the relation of the Church to the political order of the modern world."

David Gibson's thread below recalls to mind the challenge posed to Al Smith, who would become the first Catholic candidate for the presidency of the U.S. Here is how Smith replied:

I summarize my creed as an American Catholic. I believe in the worship of God according to the faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. I recognize no power in the institutions of my Church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the laws of the land. I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and in equality for all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor. I believe in the absolute separation of Church and State and in the enforcement of the provisions of the Constitution that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. I believe that no tribunal of any church has any power to make any decree of any force in the law of the land, other than to establish the status of its own communicants within its own church. I believe in the support of the public school as one of the corner stones of American liberty. I believe in the right of every parent to choose whether his child shall be educated in the public school or in a religious school supported by those of his own faith. I believe in the principle of noninterference by this country in the internal affairs of other nations and that we should stand steadfastly against any such interference by whomsoever it may be urged. And I believe in the common brotherhood of man under the common fatherhood of God. In this spirit I join with fellow Americans of all creeds in a fervent prayer 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.

Is this the sort of statement that we want politicians of any religious background to have to make? Is it only religiously serious people who should be required to formulate such a "creed"? Would this be considered a sufficient statement for a Catholic candidate today? Or do developments and circumstances require something more, or something different?For the broad background I have posted an essay here; for the particulars of the Marshall-Smith debate, keep reading.

The most famous public controversy over the Church-State issue in the first half of the twentieth century was the exchange of letters between an Episcopalian layman, Charles C. Marshall, and Alfred E. Smith, the Catholic Governor of New York State and later Democratic candidate for President of the United States.

[For background, see James H. Smylie, "The Roman Catholic Church, the State and Al Smith," Church History 29 (1960) 321-43; Thomas J. Shelley, What the Hell is an Encyclical?: Governor Alfred E. Smith, Charles C. Marshall, Esq., and Father Francis P. Duffy,"U.S. Catholic Historian 15 (1997) 87-107; see also Francis L. Broderick, "When Last a Catholic Ran for President," Social Order (May 1960) 198-210.]

Marshall initiated the exchange in April, 1927, with an open letter in The Atlantic Monthly.

[Charles C. Marshall, "An Open Letter to the Honorable Alfred E. Smith," The Atlantic Monthly 139 (April, 1927) 540-49, reprinted in his book, Governor Smith's American Catholicism (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1928) 44-70.]

He began with "a note of doubt, a sinister accent of interrogation" caused by the irreconcilability of conceptions Smith shared with other Catholics with the Constitution of the U.S. Not superficial features of Catholic thought, these concepts were "derived from the basic political doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church" that has committed her "to that intolerance that has disfigured so much of her history." She defines dogmatic intolerance as her sacred duty and at best will allow a State to tolerate, "by favor, but not by right," other religions. The "irrepressible conflict" arises in mixed matters, where though both Church and State are involved, the Church claims final jurisdiction. This conflicts with the Supreme Court's decision that assigns the final decision to the State which may intervene when religious practices are "inconsistent with the peace and safety of the State." Marshall spelled out these conflicts in a series of contrasts between what the American Constitution permits or requires and what modern Popes have claimed. He then illustrated the conflict with several particular examples: the education of youth, marriage jurisprudence, the call by an American Catholic for U.S. action to preserve the Church's rights in Mexico, and Leo XIII's inflaming of ancient tensions by beatifying a Catholic objector under Queen Elizabeth. Marshall concluded:

Nothing will be of greater satisfaction to those of your fellow citizens who hesitate in their endorsement of your candidacy because of the religious issues involved than such a disclaimer by you of the convictions here imputed, or such an exposition by others of the questions here presented, as may justly turn public opinion in your favor.

Smith replied to Marshall in the next issue of the magazine.

[Alfred E. Smith, "Catholic and Patriot: Governor Smith Replies," The Atlantic Monthly, 139 (May, 1927), 721-28, reprinted in Progressive Democracy: Addresses and State Papers of Alfred E. Smith (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1928) 254-69.]

Disclaiming any canonical or theological expertise, he said that he had received assistance in writing his reply from Father Francis P. Duffy, the famous chaplain of the 165th Regiment in World War I and a former professor at the New York Seminary. Smith vigorously denied that in his twenty-five years of public service there had ever been any conflict between his official duties and his faith. After affirming his belief that public education is "one of the foremost functions of government," he expressed his inability to understand "how anything that I was taught to believe as a Catholic could possibly be in conflict with what is good citizenship;" and he urged an end to quarreling "over dogmatic principles" and "the bickering among our sects" lest young people lose all interest in religion whatever. After these and other general illustrations of the compatibility of Catholicism with public service, Smith turned to Marshall's specific questions. He corrected his misinterpretation of the meaning of dogmatic intolerance, which affects only the Church's attitude towards Catholics themselves. He questioned Marshall's right to "ask me to assume responsibility for every statement that may be made in any encyclical letter," pointing out that such documents are not "articles of faith":

The Syllabus of Pope Pius IX, which you quote on the possible conflict between Church and State, is declared by Cardinal Newman to have "no dogmatic force." You seem to think that Catholics must be all alike in mind and in heart, as though they had been poured into and taken out of the same mould. You have no more right to ask me to defend as part of my faith every statement coming from a prelate than I should have to ask you to accept as an article of your religious faith every statement of an Episcopal bishop, or of your political faith every statement of a President of the United States. So little are these matters of the essence of my faith, that I, a devout Catholic since childhood, never heard of them until I read your letter.

Smith went on to quote Msgr. Ryan and Father Pohle on the obligation of Catholics to accept religious tolerance in a religiously pluralistic society. To their names he then added those of Cardinals O'Connell and Gibbons and of Archbishops Ireland and Dowling, concluding from their words his right to "stand squarely in support of the provisions of the Constitution which guarantee religious freedom and equality." Reminding Marshall that his faith also acknowledged the distinct spheres of Church and State, he asked him:

What is this conflict about which you talk? It may exist in some lands which do not guarantee religious freedom. But in the wildest dreams of your imagination you cannot conjure up a possible conflict between religious principle and political duty in the United States, except on the unthinkable hypothesis that some law were to be passed which violated the common morality of all God-fearing men. And if you can conjure up such a conflict, how would a Protestant resolve it? Obviously by the dictates of his conscience. That is exactly what a Catholic would do. There is no ecclesiastical tribunal which would have the slightest claim upon the obedience of Catholic communicants in the resolution of such a conflict.

And in support of these claims, he again quoted Gibbons, Ireland, and England on a Catholic's right in conscience to resist even the Pope were he to act beyond his competence. After brief replies to Marshall's cases of conflict in education and marriage jurisprudence, Smith pointed out that the U.S. Bishops had explicitly rejected the imputation that their defense of the rights of the Church in Mexico were a call for armed intervention. He ended with a sort of confession of faith:

I summarize my creed as an American Catholic. I believe in the worship of God according to the faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. I recognize no power in the institutions of my Church to interfere with the operations of the Constitution of the United States or the enforcement of the laws of the land. I believe in absolute freedom of conscience for all men and in equality for all churches, all sects, and all beliefs before the law as a matter of right and not as a matter of favor. I believe in the absolute separation of Church and State and in the enforcement of the provisions of the Constitution that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. I believe that no tribunal of any church has any power to make any decree of any force in the law of the land, other than to establish the status of its own communicants within its own church. I believe in the support of the public school as one of the corner stones of American liberty. I believe in the right of every parent to choose whether his child shall be educated in the public school or in a religious school supported by those of his own faith. I believe in the principle of noninterference by this country in the internal affairs of other nations and that we should stand steadfastly against any such interference by whomsoever it may be urged. And I believe in the common brotherhood of man under the common fatherhood of God. In this spirit I join with fellow Americans of all creeds in a fervent prayer 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.

Marshall published a rejoinder immediately after Smith's reply was released.

[See Marshall, Governor Smith's American Catholicism, 72-84.]

He could not accept Smith's statement that Catholics did not hold the views Marshall had attributed to them. He cited in evidence a Manual of Christian Doctrine, published in 1926 by John Joseph McVey with an imprimatur of the Archbishop of Philadelphia. In it the Pope was taught to have "the right to annul those laws or acts of government that would injure the salvation of souls or attack the natural rights of citizens, while the State was said to have the right and duty to proscribe schism or heresy, but that "dissenting worships" could be tolerated when they have "acquired a sort of legal existence consecrated by time and accorded by treaties or covenants." Marshall argued that, therefore, Catholics were still being taught principles incompatible with the American Constitution. Later Marshall also cited Hilaire Belloc's statement that "the Roman Catholic Church is, in its root-principle, at issue with the civic definitions of freedom and authority." In his final paragraph he expressed his hope for the future:

In closing, let me say with the greatest emphasis that no view I have expressed has been intended to suggest the placing of a ban against candidacy for office because of religion. The way out lies by no such unhappy path; and your disclaimer is my voucher for this assertion. It is often said your venerable Church never changes, but history proves this is not true. There is transforming religion within her as well as confining polity. In spite of the latter, imposing indeed is her store of the riches of grace, piety and devotion. She may be encumbered at present with the undiscarded traditions of mediaevalism, but she is alert to the call of her divine Master. May your disclaimer mark the beginning of the era when that Church may so redress her historic claim that the whole Christian world may be one with her and her polity be brought into harmony with the modern State.

The idea that this new era might be opening dominated the long essay Marshall then wrote for the book in which he published his open letter and rejoinder.

[Marshall, Governor Smith's American Catholicism, 1-43.]

In the U.S., he noted, Smith's reply had reassured his fellow citizens that "in his discharge of the highest civic trust from the American people he would never allow his loyalty to his Church to conflict with his loyalty to the State, as the State (not the Church) defined such loyalty." But the exchange had also attracted interest elsewhere; in Europe Smith's reply was seen as evidence "that in the New World a Roman Catholic statesman of intrepid spirit had set forth convictions in respect to the relation of his Church to the State that, to the European mind, were in flat conflict with the decrees of 1870, and what the Popes had asserted and the Church had practiced as integral in religious faith since that date,--and there was neither denial, rebuke nor admonition from ecclesiastical authority." In the U.S., Marshall went on, Smith's reply was seen as evidence of "the existence of something that was curiously designated as 'American Catholicism,'" which, as Walter Lippmann had noted, revealed no differences from Protestantism on the relation between religion and secular matters. While welcoming the effect of public validation of Smith's candidacy, Marshall repeated his fear that the principles of 1870, the Vatican Council's statements about papal primacy and infallibility, remained in force and continued to imply papal jurisdiction over the State in mixed matters. It remained that "a civic community or State motivated in moral matters through a Roman Catholic solidarity by an ecclesiastical government at Rome differs radically from one motivated by the Civic Primacy of its people within the State." He pointed out the contradictions between Smith's concluding statement of beliefs and the official teachings of the modern Popes. Marshall then went on to speak of the international echoes of Smith's reply which, he said, had attracted press-interest in France, England, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Australia, China and Ceylon! He took specific note of French interest, in the context of the papal condemnation of Action franaise, in Smith's letter as "the contribution of American Catholic thought as to what the doctrine and dogma of the Church ought to be, if not what it is." The French journal, <i>L'Europe Nouvelle</i>, had published Smith's letter in full, reading it as in flat contradiction to the Syllabus of Pius IX and as related to Montalembert's liberal Catholicism and to the traditional liberties claimed by the Gallican Church. The French newspaper saw Smith's position as a denial of the indirect power of the Church in secular matters; it wondered if the American Church enjoyed a derogation of the law that European Catholics felt obliged to obey. Marshall himself noted how anomalous it would be for the Church "if its membership in the United States could develop for itself an American Catholicism that involved a departure from the universal doctrine of the Church." What was needed to clarify the issue, he concluded, was for the Church's highest authority to issue "an authoritative declaration as to the relation of the Church to the political order of the modern world."

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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