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Susie and the Pope

Bob Strong/Getty Image

Here is the twice-born president and here is the pontiff of Rome, and they greet and smile... but all I can see in the crowd is Susie. She isn't there in person of course; she is buried beside the butternut tree in a pasture cemetery in South Lee, New Hampshire, within sight of the farmhouse where she was born, 98 years earlier. The million who will say mass on the Washington Mall with the pope are awed by the precedent and this is an historic event, all right, but people are inclined to interpret these things in personal terms. The pope in the White House? I wonder how Susie would feel about it.

America was founded on religion. People came from a long way to be able to pray as they pleased. Susie's forebears did. They put it there in the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…." Early settlers were stiff-necked and narrow. (Nobody is prejudiced anymore because nobody takes it that seriously; you have to believe in something first to be bigoted.) Was Susie prejudiced? No, she just reflected the views of her place and time, on a farm where the croquet wickets had to come in on Saturday night because tomorrow was Sunday.

The pope's visit is a tremendous moment but you need a bit of history to realize how tremendous it is. My point of departure is a black manual that looks like a prayer book, with the words in gilt on the cover: "RULES 1867 Benj F. LANG." He was Susie's grandfather. He served in the New Hampshire state legislature in 1867 and the handbook gives the state constitution, adopted in 1792. Article 42 says that "no person shall be eligible for this office [governor] ... unless he shall be of the Protestant religion." There is a Protestant requirement for senators, too. The book has statistics on the recent election. I am sure you want to know how Lee voted in the Lincoln-McClellan contest; it cast 78 votes for Lincoln and 106 for McClellan. McClellan, of course, had all the charisma.

The Protestant clause for governor wasn’t much more than a century ago. The thing that changed the religious and ethnic set-up was a vegetable. Yes, the potato crop failed in Ireland in the 1840s and the population dropped catastrophically from 8.5 million to 6.5 million. Some starved and a million and a half suddenly came to America. So the local zealots here formed the anticlerical Know-Nothing party ("What does it stand for?"—"I know nothing"). Would America have religious wars and assassinations like Europe's? Not with that freedom clause in the Constitution. Religion was just below the political surface, however.

In the 1884 Cleveland-Blaine contest religion swung the election. That was a gaudy affair with Cleveland's illegitimate child and Blaine's supposed pilfering: "Blaine, Blaine, Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine!" and "Ma, Ma, where's my Pa?— Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha." Everything turned on New York's 36 electoral votes. The Reverend Samuel Borchard, introducing Blaine at a New York rally, called Democrats the party of "Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion." Blaine didn't protest; Tammany reacted; Cleveland carried the state by just 1149 votes out of 1,200,000 with a consequent national electoral count of 219-182.

Some 40 years later Herbert Hoover beat Al Smith by a landslide with an election that showed, some political pundits declared, that no Catholic could ever be elected president—he would invite the pope to the White House, wouldn't he? Then came Kennedy. The supreme test was at the Rice Hotel, Houston, on September 12, 1960. The senator faced the Greater Houston Ministerial Association and declared, "I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president, should he be a Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote." They doubted; they rubbed their eyes— they believed. They interrupted one explanation with ringing applause. His younger brother Teddy today opposes abortion, but he votes for use of tax funds in the District of Columbia to finance abortions of poor women because the majority so decreed.

So I am awed by John Paul II's visit to Washington. How much is symbol, how much is real? How does it weave into the fabric of history? This is the first modern, secular, pluralistic nation the new pope has visited; this is the country where the founders wrote freedom of choice into their basic law; where taxes cannot support a church, where the Supreme Court ruled as recently as 1963 (rather uncomfortably) that legislatures may not require public school classes to recite Bible verses or even, bless us, the Lord's Prayer. America changes; so does the church, though slowly; it gave up the ban on loaning money at interest after several centuries; it finally agreed that Galileo was right that the earth moves around the sun. It now faces communicants who do not accept the ban' against contraceptives—a matter of considerable demographic as well as personal importance as the global race accelerates between food and population.

Jimmy Carter, born James Earl Carter, welcomes John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla, the leader of an institution of two centuries greeting one of two millennia. Now there is a third ideology loose in the world, a newcomer; it is a lay religion that preaches communist atheism, worships the state, and has nuclear bombs. Both men are wary of it. 

I think Susie would have adjusted to these changes and looked forward eagerly to the next chapter, as she always did. I use her as a symbol of the past viewing the startling present. She didn't know much about the Catholic Church, I guess, except what she got out of Ivanhoe and The Cloister and the Hearth, and they were prejudiced. A great change came in the Second Vatican Council, 1962-65. It opened the way to the vernacular in the services, extended a friendly hand to other faiths, and expressly endorsed the freedom of religion. But this nod to modernism has caused uncertainty, students declare. As the pageantry goes on in the pope's visit, and the genuine friendliness, priestly ordinations decline. Can the celibate priesthood continue? Protestant churches have problems, too. The enemy today is materialism and hedonism; not bigotry but indifference.