The Archivist’s Nook: A Brief Meditation on Presidents, Popes, and Power on the Eve of Pope Francis’ Visit

This popular 1871 Thomas Nast cartoon reflects the anti-Catholicism present in the U.S. at the time. Inviting the pope to address Congress would have been unthinkable back in the nineteenth century.
This popular 1871 Thomas Nast cartoon reflects the anti-Catholicism present in the U.S. at the time. Inviting the pope to address Congress would have been unthinkable back in the nineteenth century.

Believe it or not, U.S. Presidents once upon a time came to Catholic University for the most mundane of events.  When the cornerstone for Caldwell (then Divinity) Hall was laid in 1888, President Grover Cleveland was there.  When the University formally opened a year later, President Benjamin Harrison showed up for the festivities, despite the downpour.  Friends with Rector Thomas Conaty, William McKinley visited him at CUA in 1900.

Quite by accident, Theodore Roosevelt meandered over to the University grounds on his horse in 1905, though he seemed to enjoy chatting up some of the CUA’s first undergrads once he found himself on what we today call the quad.   The less loquacious Calvin Coolidge showed up for the dedication of Mullen Library in 1924—there are no reports of “Silent Cal” being shushed by librarians.

Oddly enough, these presidents visited when anti-Catholicism in the U.S. was in full-swing.  Catholics were generally reviled by most non-Catholic Americans until the election of 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected President (Kennedy came to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception when he was a Senator, but not as President).

When the Catholic Al Smith ran for President in 1928, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in protest. As this 1920s cartoon shows, the Klan feared his connection to Rome and the Pope, as well as booze.
When the Catholic Al Smith ran for President in 1928, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in protest. As this 1920s cartoon shows, the Klan feared his connection to Rome and the Pope, as well as booze.

Indeed, when Al Smith, a Catholic from New York (and a CUA trustee), ran for President in 1928, he suffered anti-Catholic sentiment far and wide.  When he traveled across the country by train during his campaign, members of the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses along the route in protest of his Catholic background.  Needless to say, Smith lost the election in a landslide to Quaker Herbert Hoover.

And yet, President Franklin Roosevelt came to campus to accept an honorary degree in 1933.  FDR knew many professors here at CUA, and sought advice on various New Deal policies from several of them.   Indeed, Professor John A. Ryan, an adviser to Roosevelt and several of his cabinet members, bestowed the benediction at two of FDR’s inaugural ceremonies.  President Dwight Eisenhower showed up twenty years later, received an honorary doctorate, and addressed members of the  National Catholic Education Association (NCEA).

Finally, in June of 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson received an honorary doctor of laws degree from CUA, delivering the commencement speech on the importance of world peace in the process.

That was it though, folks.  Nary a U.S. President has made the five-mile trip from the White House over to CUA for a visit since Johnson.  There hasn’t been a president on campus for fifty years.

Just as the presidential cavalcade ended, however, the papal visits began, not only to the CUA campus, but to the White House as well.  Though the University’s founder is Pope Leo XIII, he never visited campus, nor did any of his papal successors until John Paul II.  Indeed, John Paul was the first pope to visit the White House, at the invitation of President Jimmy Carter, in 1979.  He was CUA’s first visiting pope as well.   John Paul’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, was met by then President George W. Bush at Andrews Air Force Base, escorted to the White House, and even presented by Bush with a birthday cake (his birthday falls on April 19th, three days after that 2008 visit).

A cartoon Thomas Nast would never have dreamed 144 years ago.
A cartoon Thomas Nast would never have dreamed 144 years ago.

Not to be outdone, President Barack Obama will literally roll out the red carpet for Pope Francis upon the pontiff’s arrival at the White House on September 23rd, just before Francis heads over to the National Shrine to celebrate Mass.  A real first that underscores how far we’ve come from the days of Nast’s anti-Catholic cartoons: Pope Francis addresses Congress on September 24th.  A truly historic moment for both Catholics and Americans.

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