Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Ex-Benedict: Why Popes Matter to Presidents

U.S. President Ronald Reagan shakes hands with Pope John Paul II on the podium at Miami International Airport, Fla., on Sept. 10, 1987. U.S. President Ronald Reagan shakes hands with Pope John Paul II on the podium at Miami International Airport, Fla., on Sept. 10, 1987. Bob Daugherty/AP file photo

The history of American presidents and popes is a curious one. No American president met with a pope until Woodrow Wilson did so in 1919, and after that there was no meeting for another 40 years until Dwight Eisenhower met with John XXIII toward the end of his presidency and at the beginning of the pontiff’s short reign.

It’s hard to imagine now that John F. Kennedy, when he ran for president, had to fend off charges that he’d take orders from the Vatican and owed his allegiance to the pope. The charges came not from known racists but from the likes of Norman Vincent Peale, one of America’s popular pastors. It’s not that the America of 1960, the America of DiMaggio and Sinatra, was brimming with the same anti-Catholic sentiment that fueled the anti-immigration movements of the late 19th and early 20th century. The previous century saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan (which was anti-Catholic as well as anti-black) and the birth of nativist parties such as the Know Nothings. But in the America of 1960, anti-Catholic prejudice still led to doubts that a Catholic could be elected president.

Pope John XXIII’s reign helped the young Massachusetts senator overcome anti-Catholicism. The pope's push toward reform of the church, his outreach to Jews, and his general openness helped promote the image of a more modern and open church that was in keeping with Kennedy’s tenure. It’s hard to remember how physically isolated popes used to be. John XXIII ended papal isolation within post-unification Italy, becoming the first pontiff to visit churches around Rome since 1870. It’s impossible to know if Kennedy would or would not have been elected without John XXIII, but his papacy was certainly helpful. During his presidency, Kennedy met with the pope but generally kept his distance. Jackie Kennedy had to push to get her husband to send a letter to the pope applauding his calls for global peace. Some historical accounts of the Cuban missile crisis point to the Vatican’s call for peace during the week that tensions almost flared into nuclear war. It was a call that was surprisingly reprinted in the Soviet organ Pravda, not known for its religious coverage, and it helped give Khrushchev a hook for backing down.

Likewise, for Ronald Reagan, the ascension of Pope John Paul II in 1978 added a boost to his anticommunist rhetoric. The first Polish Pope, John Paul II’s stand against communism and his celebration of Masses in Poland helped spur the strikes at the Gdansk shipyard and the Solidarity movement that led to the overthrow of the Polish government. Reagan’s notions of rolling back Communism, which seemed an affront to all foreign policy thinking since World War II, had a new legitimacy. The pontiff also challenged Communism in a fundamental way, not only through sermons but through travels to the Warsaw Pact.

It’s hard to imagine the next pope having a big influence on President Obama. Communism is gone, and Catholics are woven into American life. But history has a way of being unpredictable. A pope who launches an aggressive push to convert Islam, reunites the Russian Orthodox Church, or promotes civil disobedience among illegal immigrants would see the impact of his decrees felt not only in Vatican City but in Washington, too, and upend life for a president trying to deal with the Muslim world, contain Vladimir Putin, and pass an immigration bill. In American politics, the Vatican looms smaller now, but it still looms.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.