Should a Catholic Be President?

An Open Letter to Mr. Charles Marshall
Governor Al Smith

SIR :--Governor Smith has said that he will answer the open letter addressed to him by you and published in the April number of the Atlantic Monthly. As Governor Smith is well known to be a man who always speaks for himself, it would be impertinent for anybody else to attempt to answer your letter in so far as it directly concerns him, and his presumed candidacy for the presidential nomination. But your letter being public, and raising questions and problems of a fundamental political and religious importance, the discussion of its subject-matter seems to be a proper concern for others than Governor Smith and you; indeed, such discussion is invited by the responsible journal in which your letter is printed. The Commonweal, therefore, ventures to otter certain opinions which we hope may help to bring about the end you yourself desire, which is, the consideration in a spirit of fairness and tolerance of the main question you raise--namely, can a loyal and conscientious Catholic American, if elected to the Presidency of the republic, conscientiously support and defend the American Constitution and sincerely and without equivocation uphold the principles of civil and religious liberty on which American institutions are based? 

First of all, The Commonweal is aware of your profound religious conviction and habit, and respectfully acknowledges your competence as a student of religious and political questions. In a recent letter to this journal in connection with the Marlborough case, you said that you did not address your letter to us "in any caviling spirit, but in a spirit of honest inquiry by one who has given some years of study to Roman Catholic claims and who loves the religion of the Latin Church although he is quite unable to accept what seems to him its factitious and purely nonreligious accretions." In brief, you are a man sincerely and deeply concerned with what we of this journal believe to be the primary concern of all intelligent men and women--namely, religion. 

The question you raise is of prime interest and importance to some twenty million American Catholics and also, necessarily, to all Americans of other religious beliefs, or of no religious beliefs. Moreover, your question does not relate merely to the Presidency. The Presidency is the highest one of a series of public offices and responsibilities and duties which by the theory and in the practice of constitutional principles are open to all American citizens equally--the sole distinction that separates the Presidency from the other offices being that its incumbent shall be an American citizen by right of birth, while the lesser offices are open to naturalized as well as to born citizens. Tremendous as are the powers of the President, however, after all he is not an absolute ruler; he simply shares, though of course his share is the largest, in the sum total of civil responsibility that rests upon all elected or appointed public officials or representatives. If a President cannot or should not be trusted to uphold the Constitution and support the principles of civil and religious liberty on which American institutions are based, simply because he is a Catholic, neither can or should any Catholic be trusted with any public office. Logically indeed --and you, Sir, as your letter to Governor Smith plainly and somewhat painfully shows, are well accustomed to let your mind follow premises to their extreme conclusions--logically, we repeat, no Catholic can or should be trusted even to vote for the election of any public official, or in any other way to take any part whatsoever in public affairs, if once it be dearly, squarely and fairly established that no Catholic can or should be President because his religious beliefs are really irreconcilable with the Constitution and with the principles of civil and religious liberty on which American institutions are based. 

Without in any way impugning your sincerity, or questioning your own conviction that your question is of immediate and paramount importance, The Commonweal thinks that it is essentially so academic and theoretical a question as practically to be without particular significance to any save purely legalistic minds, on the one hand, or that much larger number of people whose thinking on this subject proceeds from inherited prejudice. It really seems to us that to ask Governor Smith, or any other Catholic who may be a candidate for the Presidency or for any other elective office, how he would act in the case of a hypothetical conflict between the principles of the American Constitution and the religious dogmas of the Catholic Church, is like asking a man what he is planning to do in case a comet should hit the earth, or if a tidal wave should rush in from the Atlantic or the Pacific, submerging the whole country. Theoretically, either of these events may occur--today, tomorrow, a century hence, or a million years from now. Scientific principles and facts would seem to support the view that some time or other a comet may collide with the earth, or that some eruption in the bed of some ocean may or might cause the inundation of whole continents, as may have happened in the case of the lost Atlantis. But practical men or governments are as yet not taking any measures to save us from such catastrophes. 

The Presidency, to repeat, is not the instrument of a supreme autocrat nor of an oligarchy.

Practical Americans, instead of fleeing from the shadow of Giant Pope, are more likely to remember that thousands and tens of thousands of American Catholics have been elected or appointed to public office, from such posts as the chief justiceship of the Supreme Court, or cabinet positions, or chairs in the Senate, down to the humblest political positions. They have been entrusted with high command in the army and navy. They have marched and fought in all the wars of the United States. It is true that never until now has the question practically arisen as to whether an individual Catholic should be investigated or interrogated because of the imminent probability of his nomination as a candidate for the Presidency. But the Presidency, to repeat, is not the instrument of a supreme autocrat nor of an oligarchy. A President, like a governor, a senator, a congressman, a judge, and many other officials of high and low degree, takes an oath to support the Constitution and to uphold American laws. The American President alone cannot pass a law or an amendment to the Constitution. He is an executive officer. He alone cannot conclude treaties with any foreign power, either with the Vatican or any other; nor can he declare war, even on Mexico. Even if any President desired for any private or religious reason to commit a treasonable act or to over-ride the Constitution, and should attempt to do so, he could be, and undoubtedly very promptly would be, removed from office by impeachment. 

It is true that outbursts from time to time of a rather low and ignorant type of religious bigotry have challenged or even obstructed the entrusting of public office to Catholics. It is also true that other Americans who are not bigots have been and now are uncertain, to say the least, as to how far Catholic beliefs, when rigidly and logically carried into practical effect, may or might come into conflict with principles of the American polity. But it is quite certain that neither sporadic bigotry nor the honest doubt of a minority of minds has affected the political behaviour of the American people. 

The issue raised by you, Sir, which is really practical and important, is the issue of alleged divided loyalty. This is the bugaboo which haunts and troubles you and other honest men; and which when it inflames the minds of less reasonable and more emotional people, who have been brought up in a tradition of suspicion and distrust of Catholicism, incites them to the most anti-social type of violence and aggression. Governor Smith and thousands and thousands of other American Catholics have answered the practical aspects of your main questions over and over again. Their answer has been accepted to the full satisfaction of a vast majority of their fellow-Americans, whether Catholic, Protestant, Jew, agnostic, or atheist. 

There remains, however, another question. In being loyal to the American Constitution and American principles, have Governor Smith and the tens of thousands of other American Catholics elected to office, also been loyal to the Catholic Church? The Commonweal believes that any fair mind familiar with the Constitution of the United States, and the history behind that Constitution, and familiar with Catholic dogma, and with the relation of the American Constitution and the history behind it to the Catholic idea of the state, will answer that second question as the first has been answered--emphatically in the affirmative. 

The Commonweal also believes that all these Catholics have been loyal both to their country and to their Church when they took their oath of office. The Commonweal believes, furthermore, that these Catholic executives, legislators, judges, soldiers and sailors, aldermen or policemen, would not have been nor could be loyal Catholics if they refused to take their oaths of office, or if they too~: them with anything resembling a mental reservation. For The Commonweal believes that the great principles of the Catholic Church, as applied to countries with a mixed religious population --principles which are included even in the brief quotations from the Popes made by you, Sir--are identical, or at least are thoroughly consonant, with those principles upon which the United States of America was founded and her Constitution built. 

It is always misleading to quote a few words out of their context or out of relation to the specific conditions which gave rise to them. Even the meaning of the Constitution demands constant interpretation by the Supreme Court, and isolated passages have to be read in relation to the whole document and in the light of plain common sense and changing conditions, and new modes of application to specific instances. Therefore, the quotations made by you from papal utterances which superficially seem to bear out your contention that they are proofs of the conflict between Catholic dogmas and American political principles, are misleading. We cannot deal with them fully or in detail because whole volumes would have to be written to elucidate single sentences. It should also be re. membered that not every papal utterance comes under the heading of ex cathedra or absolutely authoritative teaching. Papal encyclicals represent the considered opinion of an individual Pope, based upon the considered opinions of his counselors or advisors, but not always and of necessity do they lay down the binding laws of the Church. In many instances, individual Catholics might be wholly justified in saying as certain Irish political leaders said---that they take their religion from Rome but not their politics. Nor do they take their economic systems; nor their methods of painting pictures, building bridges, or playing golf. Catholics certainly would give to any and all opinions uttered by their Popes or their bishops most respectful consideration, just as all reasonable American citizens would give a respectful hearing to any and all decisions handed down by their Supreme Court, but they would not necessarily consider all of them absolutely sound. The essential thing in connection with these papal quotations is this, namely, that here we are discussing the prevailing opinion of Catholic thought about the state, and discussing it only as it relates to the American Constitution. We are not discussing the Mexican, the French, the Turkish, or the Haitian constitutions. Moreover, we are not discussing the theories of the Catholic Church on some theoretical and ideal universal Christian state, in which all the people belong to the Catholic Church and accept the same moral standards. Many of the quotations which you make, Sir, refer only to such a theoretical or ideal state, much as if this journal were to say that the ideal municipality should have no policemen, because every citizen would voluntarily and as it were instinctively obey the law, and hence all would really be policemen. 

The essence of the Catholic idea of the state, as we of The Commonweal see it--of a state like the American, in which half the population professes no religious belief, and the rest are unequally divided between Protestants, Jews, and Catholics--is simply that moral law may at times actually be superior to man-made law. In this sense, not only Catholics, but all believers in the moral law are theoretically liable to come into conflict, individually or collectively, with laws of the state, if or when such state laws positively clash with moral laws. And we think that this idea, the idea that moral is superior to man-made law, is the most fundamental idea in American governance. 

The American Constitution, framed to meet the actual conditions of the last two centuries, grew out of this idea. It grew out of a struggle between the lawmaking power of Great Britain and the American colonists. If the colonists had not believed that certain rights of man were superior to the repressive laws of Great Britain, they would not have had occasion to rebel against the authority of the British state. They would not have become the traitors they were held to be by the British state. Nor would they have become that nation which today Great Britain regards as its equal and its companion in civilization. It was pre.cisely because the British state tried to transgress what the American colonists believed were the supreme moral rights of human beings that the colonists rebelled, and felt justified in rebelling--and who among their descendants would not say that they were right in rebelling against the binding authority of the British state, and breaking their allegiance to it? 

And the fathers of the new American state framed their own Constitution with the single idea that the American government should never do to any part of its citizens what Great Britain had tried to do to the colonists. They inserted the first twelve amendments as a bill of rights to protect minorities---thus to set a limit to the domain of man-made law and protect the supreme moral rights of individuals and groups of individuals. In effect they said that "there are certain moral rights which are superior even to the wishes of a majority"--and probably half of the work of the Supreme Court ever since has been to set a limit to the powers of state legislatures and of Congress to transgress those moral rights. 

In this sense, not only Catholics, but all believers in the moral law are theoretically liable to come into conflict, individually or collectively, with laws of the state, if or when such state laws positively clash with moral laws.

Now that is exactly what the Catholic Church means in saying that the laws of God---the Author of the moral law--must be supreme. And the same idea did not die with the authors of the Constitution. It is not Catholics alone who place moral law first. Let us give an extreme example to prove the point clearly. Suppose that Congress should legislate compulsory polygamy. Would the Catholic citizen be the only conscientious objector and the only one to disobey such a law? What of the Episcopalians, the Baptists, the Jews? What of every man, religious or not, who stood by the American principle of freedom of conscience in the conduct of his private life ? There would be thousands upon thousands of non-Catholic Americans who would disobey such a law, and each one would do so on the ground that his own moral law, as determined by his own conscience--or by whatever authority, the Bible or otherwise, he accepts--was superior as a last appeal to this act of Congress. 

Of course, the really important point is that Congress has no power to pass such a law or the President to enforce it. The Constitution expressly forbids it-- just as it forbade the enactment of a law in Oregon denying the right of citizens to educate their children in schools of their own choice. Americans believe, as King Canute of legendary ridicule found out, that some things are reserved to God--or, if you prefer, to God as expressed in nature. It is not only the ocean's tides that man cannot stop. There are moral tides which no body of men, even though they represent a nation, may try to check. Americans, with their supreme gift of common sense, know this. That is why we have a Constitution of the kind we have. That is why countries whose constitutions do not protect minorities as ours does, have piled disorder upon disorder. 

It is unfortunate that, in a matter of so much importance, you do not give to the inquiring reader the usual assistance of adequate references for your citations of Supreme Court decisions, which you believe to support your position. You refer on two occasions to the decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Watson vs. Jones. In one citation of this opinion, that in which the Court states that this government recognizes no heresy, the page reference is exact and sufficient. But in the rather more important quotation to the effect that religious liberty must be understood as limited by any actions which might prove contrary to" the peace and security of the state, you fail to give the page reference. We have had communications from diligent searchers to the effect that they have been unable to find this passage in the Supreme Court decision to which reference is made. Although further search of this very long decision should reveal the passage in question, it would certainly be a gracious and helpful gesture on your part to supplement your letter with more specific page citations. 

Your oversight, however, has extended far beyond the technical point of reference pages. The decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Watson vs. Jones, when read in its entirety, not only gives an impression differing considerably from that given by your brief quotations, but it actually supplies, in judicial wording, one of the strongest possible answers to the very questions which you raise. It is difficult to understand how, in your search for truth and enlightenment in this matter, you failed to gain comfort from these other passages in the decision. Thus we find (Wallace, Volume XIII, pages 73o-t ) the Court quoting with approval the words of Chancellor Johnson of the Court of Appeals in South Carolina in the case of Harmon vs. Breher to the following effect: "The structure of our government has, for the preservation of civil liberty, rescued the temporal institutions from religious interference. On the other hand, it has secured religious liberty from the invasion of the civil authority." 

And again, on the following page (Wallace, XIII, page 732 ) we find the Court quoting with distinct approval the opinion of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in the case of the German Reformed Church vs. Seibert as follows: "The decisions of ecclesiastical courts, like every other judicial tribunal, are final, as they are the best judge of what constitutes an offense against the word of God and the discipline of the Church." It is very far from our intention to enter on a detailed discussion of constitutional law in this country, but we would be quite derelict in our attitude as interested readers of your letter if we did not refer you, and your and our readers, to the above passages in the same opinion upon which you base so important a part of your inquiry!

Curiously enough, some people, including you, Sir, seem to resent the fact that the Popes assume the right of telling the individual Catholic what the moral law is that he should hold supreme. We don't know why you should resent this, for it is only binding on those who voluntarily accept it. Moreover, if a Christian church exists at all, it surely exists to pass on the moral teachings of Christ--just as surely as the Supreme Court exists to pass on and interpret the civil principles stated in a condensed form in the Constitution. You cannot be so un-American in your principles as to believe that a church must be a church consisting entirely of Americans before it can claim the right to interpret moral law for its own members. Should a large body of Americans subscribe to the moral teachings of some Hindu teacher, ought they thereby to forfeit their right to hold office in the American government? That would be to set up a new form of national religion--a demand that we should accept only those moral teachings originated by Americans; a negative national religion to be sure, but none the less a national religion. And that is not only contrary to American common sense. It is expressly prohibited by the Constitution. 

Of course, we are quite aware that the Church, believing itself to be the appointed Church of Christ, has asserted in His Name, the moral right to interpret dogma and doctrine for all mankind, going forth, as it were, "to teach all nations." But the belief in one's moral right to do something, and the assertion of one's legal right to enforce the acquiescence of all men, are two vastly different things. As any Catholic knows, not every applicant is received into the Catholic Church. The Church accepts as converts only those who give adequate proof of a genuine faith in the teachings of the Church. Lip service is not enough. And every Catholic knows that the Church considers faith a divine gift--not something that can or should be imposed. And with an understanding of this simple principle, which every Catholic boy or girl learns from his primer Catechism, the whole bogey of a Catholic Church demanding the legal right to enforce its beliefs on everybody disappears like a foolish nightmare. Christ Himself--as all Christians believe-- taught with divine authority. He claimed the moral right to teach all nations. But He sought no civil authority to enforce the spread of His teachings. That, in brief, is the Catholic position, as every Catholic knows it, and that is the only interpretation which any fair-minded man must place on the moral claims of the Church. 

And so we repeat that the American in any walk of life who takes an oath to support the American Constitution is swearing to do the thing nearest his own heart--to support an idea of the state which recognizes the separate domain of the civil and moral law m of Caesar and God. We are not talking about abstract and possible constitutions. We are talking about the American Constitution of today, as it stands, and as every honest American hopes it will always stand, so long as our nation is made up, as it is, from the peoples and the beliefs of the entire earth. And to that Constitution which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"--to that Constitution which, in those very words, asserts the inviolability of moral law, American Catholics give their full and undivided allegiance, not in spite of belonging to the Catholic Church, but largely because they are Catholics. 

In doing this, they are not in the slightest degree disloyal to the express teachings of the Catholic Church as applied to the kind of society in which Americans live and work. Perhaps the Baptists would be pleased to see all Americans embrace their faith. Perhaps the Episcopalians would rejoice to see a hundred million voluntary converts to the Episcopal Church. Perhaps as Catholics, we, too, would like to see all men in voluntary religious accord. But dreams are not facts. Americans are not the only people on earth blessed with common sense. The idea of the state for which the Catholic Church stands in a land such as ours is the same idea for which the colonists came to this country; for which Catholic Englishmen founded Maryland, the corner-stone of the national edifice of religious liberty; for which the signers of the Declaration of Independence gladly risked the gallows, and to which every God-fearing American today is dedicated in his heart. 

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