Today’s Democratic party is not the Democratic party of Al Smith or John Kennedy, but a secular institution with policy and program positions that fly in the face of Catholic teaching. And Joe Biden, also a Catholic Democrat, has simply drifted along with his party on the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.

“What the hell is an encyclical?” Who the heck asked such a question? Hint: The person who did the asking was a Catholic, a Democrat, and a candidate for president. That narrows things down more than a bit. Hmmm… Might it have been Joe Biden? Nope. The answer is Al Smith, the first Catholic Democrat to run for president, as well as the first Catholic to be nominated for president by any major American political party.

The year was 1928; the Republican opponent was Herbert Hoover; and Smith, then serving his fourth term as Governor of New York, was a decided underdog. He was also a frustrated underdog; hence his question.

That question was no doubt a confession of ignorance on the part of this Catholic layman, but it was also indirect evidence of his independence of mind. Smith, after all, thought of himself as both a loyal American and a faithful Catholic, who never saw a conflict between the two.

Nonetheless, Smith was under attack for his Catholicism. Would his first loyalty be to his country or to his Church? Governor Smith could anticipate no problems. He wouldn’t take orders from the Vatican, and he opposed public aid to private schools. He was simply a professional politician, who made no pretense of being even an amateur theologian; hence his frustration—and his question.

According to Frances Perkins, a Smith ally and later FDR’s Secretary of Labor, the governor knew little about Catholic theology and “didn’t care much about it.” He was prepared to be judged on his record, including his support for repeal of Prohibition, and not on his knowledge of or adherence to papal encyclicals.

And down he went to defeat, carrying only eight states totaling a meager 87 electoral votes. Six of the eight were states of the Old Confederacy. Each was solidly Democratic and just as solidly Baptist. In all likelihood, Smith would have lost, had he been a mainline Protestant. General prosperity defeated him more than anything else. Still, his 41% of the popular vote bettered the performances of the two previous Democratic nominees.

Prohibition was certainly not an issue that reached encyclical status. In fact, many prominent Catholics could be found on either side of this divide. For example, St. Paul Archbishop John Ireland had supported the ban on both booze and saloons, because he thought that both retarded the assimilation of immigrants. Smith saw great value in assimilation—with or without saloons.

Three decades would pass before another Catholic would make a serious run for the presidency. That, of course, would result in John Kennedy’s narrow victory in 1960. Like Smith, Kennedy was a skilled politician devoid of theological concerns or interests. Unlike Smith, Kennedy was something less than a faithful Catholic and not exactly an observant one.

Still, there were those same nagging concerns about the candidate’s ultimate loyalty. Those concerns were expressed by a broad cross-section of Americans, including mainline Protestant leaders, such as Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Democratic party veterans, including Eleanor Roosevelt, and not a few liberal intellectuals.

In fact, Kennedy aide and historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., publicly labeled anti-Catholicism as the “anti-Semitism of the intellectuals” before going on to classify the same as the “last acceptable prejudice.”

(The twice-defeated Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, did not share this prejudice. While campaigning for Kennedy in St. Paul, Stevenson was asked about Peale’s opposition to JFK. His response was vintage Stevenson: “I find St. Paul appealing and Peale appalling.”)

Many today will likely doubt the depth and breadth of anti-Catholicism among American intellectuals. But it was a very real thing in 1960, and it remains a very real thing today.

So real was it that candidate Kennedy had to respond—and face it down. He chose to do so in an appearance before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. Early in his speech Kennedy declared, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

In a general sense Kennedy’s position was similar to that of Smith’s. He, too, opposed public aid to parochial schools. But the adjective “absolute” suggests a significant difference. For Kennedy, his faith was entirely a private affair and one that would not inform his presidential decisions: “I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

But Kennedy’s Houston talk did speak volumes. In it, he articulated an entirely secular vision of American identity, while going further than any previous candidate in separating himself and his political views from his religious faith. In fact, so secular was his position that some American bishops publicly wondered if Kennedy would even represent the church’s views fairly and accurately.

Now fast forward six decades (thereby skipping over Catholic John Kerry’s defeat in 2004) to the election of our second Catholic president. Once again the politician in question is an Irish-Catholic Democrat. But the differences are profound. Today’s Democratic party is not the Democratic party of Al Smith or John Kennedy. It is itself a secular institution with policy and program positions that fly in the face of Catholic teaching.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with that. Political parties are free to appeal to voters as they see fit. But what happens when faith and policy collide—or don’t collide? What happens to the political leader? What happens to his country? And what happens to his church? We may well be on the verge of getting answers to such questions.

Candidate Biden has long since decided to take positions in opposition to Catholic teaching. Neither Smith nor Kennedy chose to do that. Nor did either feel compelled to do that. Two of the most prominent such issues today are, of course, abortion and same-sex marriage.

On the former, Mr. Biden had been what amounted to a Mario Cuomo Catholic: “I am personally opposed, but…” Having recently withdrawn his support for the Hyde amendment, Mr. Biden’s personal opposition to abortion is clearly compromised and can no longer be regarded as the beginning and the end of the matter.

On same-sex marriage, Biden helped drag his boss, Barack Obama, out of the closet occupied by those opposed to taking this step. He even prides himself at having officiated a same-sex wedding.

On both these issues President Biden can claim to be exercising either Smithian or Kennedy-like independence of mind. Fair enough. But both positions stand athwart any position either Smith or Kennedy could have imagined taking or being required to take, not to mention the positions of his Church.

Moreover, Mr. Biden’s stand on both of these issues runs against Catholic teaching in ways that issues of, say, immigration and social welfare do not. How many of the former and how much of the latter are matters of prudential judgment, not matters of adherence to specific religious teachings?

To this point, Mr. Biden has paid no price, political or otherwise, for his stands. Will he? We’ll see. Will he prove to be at the forefront of leading his Church to new territory? Or will his Church lead him to return to its fold? We’ll see. Someday will a Catholic presidential nominee take a firmly Catholic positions on these highly controversial matters? If so, will that result in a revival of the “anti-Semitism of the intellectuals”? Once again, we’ll see.

To date, Joe Biden has simply drifted along with his party as his party has continued to drift—and sometimes lurch—to the left. In any case, to date, he has been much more concerned about getting right with his party rather than getting right with his Church. Is he acting courageously or cravenly in doing so? Either way, he seems to be saying, in effect, to hell with at least a few encyclicals.

One way or the other, he might benefit by paying attention to a Catholic writer by the name of G.K. Chesterton who once remarked that only dead things go with the stream, while living things can go against it. Is Mr. Biden behaving like a dead thing by going with the stream of the times and against his Church?

As might be expected, Chesterton thought that it was seldom a good thing to go with the flow of one’s time—or to be a child of one’s age. Joe Biden is not a young man, but he is very much a child of this age. Here’s hoping that he’s not too old to find wisdom in his Church. That would be the same church—and its ageless encyclicals—that Chesterton thought was the only thing that prevented him from subjecting himself to the “degraded slavery” of being a child of his age.

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