From ‘the Scarlet Whore’ to Pope Francis: A Brief History of America and the Papacy

tags: Pope Francis

Ted Widmer is a frequent contributor to Politico Magazine.

It would have amazed the Founders that a pope would be willing to speak to Congress—and that Congress would want to hear him, for that matter. Americans were not seeking papal approval as they sought to begin the world anew, in Thomas Paine’s words, and they had their own reasons to keep some distance from Rome (while happily accepting military aid from Catholic monarchies like France and Spain). They were delighted that a wide ocean separated them from Europe’s frequent religious wars, and the first amendment to the Constitution spelled out clearly that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” 

The Catholic Church, for its part, had little reason to pay attention to the upstart country. When the United States came into existence, 249 popes had come and gone, and the church had seen huge empires rise and fall—adeep history that helps explain the longstanding mutual ambivalence between two great forces, one new, one old, each aspiring to be the world’s conscience.

America has never been simple for the Church. When Columbus made his way across the Atlantic, he found new plants and animals never mentioned by the Bible, and certain key ingredients missing (like grapes, needed to make wine for the Lord’s Supper). In the aftermath of the discoveries, a Spanish pope, Alexander VI, awarded most of the hemisphere to Spain, and set in motion changes that were catastrophic to indigenous peoples. 

When the 13 colonies were carved out of North America (many with grants stretching across the Spanish domains to the Pacific), their settlers inherited an English distrust of the papacy. Religious tensions were never far from the surface, even during a Revolution that went to some lengths to keep religion out of the new government. The leaders of the Revolution were overwhelmingly Protestant (only one signer of the Declaration was Catholic, Charles Carroll of Maryland), and many still cherished a worldview in which popes were regarded as corruptors of religion. Anti-pope festivals were held in many colonies, especially after the Quebec Act of 1774 terrified the colonists into thinking the British were merging them with the Catholics to the North. Effigies of the pope were paraded around American cities, and flags unfurled which read “No Popery.” Especially in New England, ministers used colorful language to denounce “the Scarlet Whore,” and routinely saw papal interventions into European politics as signs of the apocalypse, which they zealously correlated with the Book of Revelation in their dog-eared Bibles. On October 21, 1774, the Continental Congress sent England a note condemning its support for a Roman Catholic religion that “disbursed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellions through every part of the world.” So stood relations between Congress and the pope on the eve of independence. 

With time, tempers cooled, especially after the Catholic monarchy of France made our anti-monarchical revolution possible. The French and Polish heroes of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette and Tadeusz Kościuszko, were Catholic, and as Americans entered the world of international politics on their own, they became more worldly. The Vatican began to send apostolic representatives nearly as soon as the new government was established, beginning with John Carroll, the founder of Georgetown University. As had happened so many times in history, these extremely different empires began to work together.  ...

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