In thinking about yesterday’s election and elevation of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to Pope Francis, I’m pretty sure there’s never been a reception study of popes, or a pope, in U.S. intellectual historiography.* I can’t say this with authority, but after a quick search (using Worldcat and Google) I couldn’t find any titles like “John Paul II in America,”** “Americans and Leo XIII,” or “America’s Pius XII” (to add a controversial entry to this fictional list).
Still, I think one could create a series on this topic in relation to Pius XII, John Paul II, John XXIII, Paul VI, Benedict XVI, or even Leo XIII. Each of these Holy Fathers has influenced American politics and thinkers to some extent—some more than others.
For instance, the 265th pontiff, John Paul II, exhibited a sustained interest in America. He visited the United States seven times total, the last being in St. Louis in January 1999. During six of his seven visits (one being a brief layover in Alaska) John Paul II met a president. He was the first pope (I think) to visit the White House in October 1979 (during Jimmy Carter’s presidency).*** There were also meetings with Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and William J. Clinton. Most historical works on Reagan—at least the ones I’ve read—note that he made a concerted effort to coordinate Cold War anti-communist efforts with John Paul II.
I’m currently reading George Nash’s masterpiece, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Since 1945 (1976, 1996). Therein Nash makes the case that early Cold War conservative intellectuals, Catholic and otherwise, were emboldended by Pope Pius XII’s strong stand against atheistic Communism; he was, in Nash’s words, “uncompromisingly anti-Communist” (p. 114). American Catholics like William F. Buckley, Jr. were inspired by the Church’s teaching to turn anti-Communism into a crusade that both helped and hurt the right.
Several histories of American Catholicism also note the effects of the promotion of Thomas Aquinas’ work in the Church. That began with Pope Leo XIII (in office from 1878-1903), but came to fruition in American universities during Pope Pius XI’s reign (1922-39) according to Philip Gleason in Contending with Modernity (p. 107). Gleason also rightly points out that the greatest dedication to Aquinas’ teaching came with the founding of Catholic University of America in 1887.
I could go on, but let’s open this up to discussion. Are there any histories (i.e. of Catholicism, intellectual history, or otherwise) that deserve note for their treatment of a pope in America? Which pope apart from John Paul II—let’s make this challenging—has been exceptionally important to American Catholics? Are all of the rest equally influential, or lacking in influence? – TL
* John Cooney’s study of Francis Cardinal Spellman, titled The American Pope, doesn’t count.
* There were a series of talks by JPII published in book form by Charisma Press in 1980 titled Pope John Paul II in America. Those don’t count either.
** Pope Paul VI was the first the visit the U.S. in 1965. Here is a full list of papal visits to the United States.