by CHRISTOPHER HOLLIS
WE used to be told that in the United States it was possible for a Catholic to play his part in ward politics, that a President might sometimes appease the Catholics by giving a Cabinet post of something less than the highest importance to a Catholic, but that a Catholic could never hope to be elected to the highest positions — in particular could never hope to become President.
The career of Al Smith, Democratic candidate in 1928. seemed to prove that this was so. In the post-war world things were very different. In the first years after the war the Catholic cause suffered an enormous setback from the appalling persecution campaign of the earlier Senator Joseph McCarthy and the support given to it by a number of bishops, but as we know, in 1960 John Kennedy, despite his Catholicism, was able to win the Presidency.
It would be an exaggeration to say that even then anti-Catholic bigotry was wholly dead. Kennedy won only by a very narrow majority and, although obviously such things can never be definitely proved, it is pretty generally admitted that Kennedy's religion cost him a number of votes in all parts of the country, even if not nearly as many as it cost Al Smith 32 years before.
Yet whatever verdicts may be passed on other aspects of John Kennedy's policies during his tragically brief presidency, he at least effectively refuted absurd stories that a Catholic President would re.-ceive his orders by a secret line from the Vatican or that Catholics would always be preferred to Protestants in all appointments.
On the schools question John Kennedy showed himself resolutely refusing to bend the Constitution in what was thought of as a Catholic interest. His short term of office was effective in killing anti-Catholic prejudice of the more absurd sort with the result that today in contentions about Presidential candidates the handicap of a Catholic religion is hardly mentioned.
At the same time, by a curious paradox, while the Catholics are less and less accused by their opponents of applying exclusively Catholic principles to their political judgements. in fact— though in a much more sophisticated fashion than the old Know Nothings and Ku Klux Klan imagined— they are applying them more and more.
In the two World Wars there was very little independent Catholic opinion.
The great majority of Catholics, like the great majority of other Americans, were opposed to American participation in the wars so long as America was neutral and supported it when she became belligerent. The American laws about conscientious objection so ran that it was not sufficient for the objector to show that he objected to the particular war in which he was asked to participate. In order to receive exemption he had to prove that he held a religious principle which would not allow him to take part in any war in any circumstances. Catholic bishops were not backward in going into the witness-box and asserting that that was a position which a Catholic could not hold.
There were almost no Catholic conscientious objectors in the First World war and only a handful in the Second. The response to the Vietnam war has been very different. There has, of course, been no dogmatic pronouncement against the war. The late Cardinal Spellman was even able to find it to be a Christian war, but other bishops — Cardinal Cushing, for instance, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Bishop Wright and others have by no means held this view. Priests have been prominent among the opponents of the war, Catholics prominent — perhaps beyond the proportion of their numbers — among conscientious objectors.
With President Johnson's withdrawal America is faced with an extraordinary and unprecedented political situation. It is not at the moment of writing possible to predict what will be the outcome either for the fighting in Vietnam or for the Presidential election. Nor indeed is it in any way the purpose of this article to take any side on either of these issues.
But what is interesting is that it leaves as the two leading contestants for at any rate the Democratic candidacy two men—Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy —both of whom are Catholics, and, whatever the outcome, it does not seem that it will be their religion which will be the obstacle which will prevent either of them from reaching the White House.
What is interesting to note is that while both of them are excellent Catholics, they are Catholics of entirely different sorts. The Kennedys are good Catholics but no one could accuse them of being 'sacristy' men. Their father-breaking with the old Boston tradition, sent the boys not to a Catholic school but to Harvard. They have lived their lives generally in non-Catholic circles.
Though it may sometimes be convenient to them to talk about their Irish origins, they are in fact a great deal more easily at home in England than in Ireland. To them a church is a place to go to on a Sunday.
They would certainly know little about particular Catholic social systems, be very imperfectly acquainted with Papal encyclicals and they
approach problems from a
most strictly pragmatic standpoint.
Robert Kennedy is to his fingertips a politician, breathing day in and day out the electoral atmosphere, concerned with every problem that comes his way to think firstly whether or not it will bring him votes and lead him nearer to power.
The Kennedy family is, of course, a family of very great wealth and they have never made any bones about it that wealth is to be unsparingly used for the acquisition of power. In all their political campaigns they have built up for themselves well remunerated organisations upon which they have relied for their victory. According to all accounts, though the public language which Robert Kennedy uses is often idealistic, his henchmen have sometimes not shrunk from a good deal of pretty ruthless arm twisting.
It is most arguable that it is a waste of time to complain of a prominent American politician that he is of such a character since, if he were not of such a character, he would not have ever become a prominent American politician.
The fortune of Senator McCarthy over the coming months will show whether such an estimate is just. For Senator McCarthy is just the opposite sort of Catholic—a product of Catholic schools, a man whose concept of politics is very definitely shaped on the encyclicals of Pope John and the other Popes-a man who was for a time a novice in a Benedictine monastery, a man quite unfamiliar with the wealth with which Senator Kennedy was brought up.
Whatever the outcome it is certainly McCarthy who is responsible for the Vietnam issue being dragged into the forefront of the Presidential campaign. Had it not been for his action in New Hampshire there was a great possibility that, while the whole nation was talking about little but Vietnam. the Presidential election might have gone by without either of the candidates taking a definite
line on the issue.
Had there been no protest against President Johnson's policy, Senator Kennedy would have been very willing to have allowed the issue to go by default, fearing that if he took a stand in 1968 that would damage his prospects for 1972 It was Senator McCarthy who was entirely responsible for the issue being forced out into the open. Whether he will in the end be the gainer from it, whether mere goodness and piety will be sufficient to carry him to the top of the tree, I do not prophesy. What is certain is that only a few years ago it would have effectively prevented him from getting even to first base.