We could scarcely believe our eyes. Popes should look like Pius XII, thin and austere. But Pope John was positively roly-poly; moreover, he appeared uncomfortable being carried on that sedan chair and wearing a huge beehive crown. He did not like the pomp and formalities surrounding the office. Visiting a Roman prison at Christmas, he told the inmates, “You couldn’t come to me, so I have come to you.” The next month he announced an ecumenical council to update the church. By the time the council met in 1962, John had begun the redefinition of the papacy and the church that Pope Francis is now continuing.
Warm and approachable in manner, John XXIII was a pre-eminent pastor. His most significant encyclical letters, Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris, were inductive rather than deductive in methodology. What are the needs of real people? How can the church help meet them? John set the tone and direction for Vatican II’s documents. In his opening address to the Council, he made a critical distinction between the “substance” of the church’s beliefs and the ways in which those beliefs were presented.
By his death in June 1963, John XXIII the most-loved pontiff in centuries, had helped to change the way both Catholics and non-Catholics thought about the church. His legacy continued as the Council redefined the church and its mission in pastoral terms and issued its Declaration on Religious Liberty, a ringing affirmation of the rights of religious conscience based on the dignity of the human person.
The need for that statement became evident when, in the middle of John’s brief papacy, John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president of the United States. Religion dominated his 1960 campaign against Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican Party nominee. Anti-Catholicism had flourished in 19th century America and the 1928 election. Now, it surfaced again even before the primaries began.
The prospect of a Catholic in the White House swelled the membership rolls of Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Shortly after Kennedy received the Democratic Party’s nomination, Baptist evangelist Billy Graham convened a meeting of Protestant leaders in Switzerland to discuss ways to defeat the Catholic threat. In September Norman Vincent Peale, arguably the country’s most important Protestant clergyman, warned “Our freedom, our religious freedom, is at stake if we elect a member of the Roman Catholic order as President of the United States.” Wouldn’t a Catholic president take orders from the pope? American bishops had repeatedly insisted on the basis of distributive justice that Catholic schools should share in the taxes for education. If Kennedy became president, wouldn’t the hierarchy dictate governmental policies and programs? Didn’t the church teach that Catholicism was the only true religion and that, in the ideal order, other religions should be suppressed?
The candidate met the issues head-on at a meeting of the Houston Ministerial Association in September 1960. After reiterating his commitment to complete separation of church and state and his opposition to federal aid to parochial schools, Kennedy addressed the central issue: “I do not speak for my church on public matters — and the church does not speak for me.” It certainly didn’t help Kennedy’s chances, however, when, almost on the eve of the election, Archbishop James Davis of Puerto Rico told voters in that largely Catholic territory that they could not vote to re-elect Gov. Munoz Marin because he had supported birth control. Munoz won 90 percent of the vote, but Kennedy’s election was a squeaker. Once in office, however, Kennedy’s impartial performance as president effectively defused the religious issue, and incorporated Catholics into the national polity. After his assassination in November 1963, the whole nation mourned as Catholic services were televised to millions around the world.
John XXIII and his Second Vatican Council and John Kennedy and his presidency effectively reset how Americans and particularly Catholics thought about the church and the place of Catholics in America.