During much of our history as a nation, many Americans wondered what their Catholic neighbors would do if someday they became the majority of the population. Would the teaching of their church require them to declare Catholicism the official religion of the country and to limit the religious freedom of all others? As far back as 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville noted how Catholicism flourished in the free soil of America, but he questioned how committed American Catholics really were to the principle of religious liberty. “I am not sure,” he wrote, “that they would not persecute if they found themselves the strongest.”
The question of Catholic commitment to religious liberty became an especially controversial issue a century later, when the Democrats nominated Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York for president of the United States. Smith was a remarkably tolerant man, without a bigoted bone in his body. Several of his closest advisors were Jewish, and Smith had no more ardent admirer than the young Robert Moses. But in the spring of 1927, when it became likely that Smith would be the Democratic candidate for president the following year, an article appeared in The Atlantic Monthly that threatened to stop Smith’s campaign in its tracks.
The article, “An Open Letter to the Honorable Alfred E. Smith,” questioned whether a conscientious Catholic could uphold his oath of office as president of the United States. The author of the article, Charles C. Marshall, was no redneck bigot. Marshall was a prominent Episcopal layman and a constitutional lawyer. He was well acquainted with Catholic teaching, especially with the encyclicals of the 19th-century popes condemning religious liberty and the separation of church and state. On the basis of these encyclicals, Marshall contended that it would be dangerous to have a Catholic in the White House, because he would have to follow the teaching of these encyclicals rather than the Constitution of the United States. When Marshall’s article was brought to Smith’s attention, he is alleged to have said: “What the hell is an encyclical?”
Al Smith knew instinctively that Marshall’s article was unfair, but he did not know how to answer it. He had very little formal education of any kind, and none whatsoever in theology. He therefore turned to one of his closest advisors, Judge Joseph M. Proskauer, and asked him to respond to Marshall’s article. “Well,” replied Proskauer, “that would make it perfect. A Protestant lawyer challenges a Catholic candidate on his religion, and the challenge is answered by a Jewish judge.” Proskauer convinced Smith that he would have to respond personally to Marshall’s allegations.
Both Smith and Proskauer agreed that they needed help to write an effective response to Marshall, so they turned to a New York diocesan priest, the Rev. Francis P. Duffy, then pastor of Holy Cross Church on West 42nd Street. Father Duffy was probably the best known priest in the United States at that time because of his service as a chaplain with the 69th New York Regiment during World War I, for which he had been decorated by both the American and French governments. Everybody knew about Duffy’s heroic war record, but few realized that he was also a scholar. Prior to World War I he had taught philosophy and theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie, for 14 years until he fell victim to the Modernist witch hunt and was eased out because of his liberal views.
Father Duffy was delighted to help Al Smith compose a response to Charles Marshall. It gave him an opportunity not only to respond to critics like Marshall, but also to contest the views of reactionary Catholic ideologues whose anachronistic opinions gave credibility to Marshall’s charges of Catholic intolerance. “I have held very ardent convictions on these matters since I was 19 years of age,” Duffy told a friend, “and it was a matter of keen joy to me to take advantage of Governor Smith’s prestige to win a victory over the opposing Catholic school of thought.”
Al Smith’s response to Charles Marshall appeared in the next issue of The Atlantic Monthly under the title “Catholic and Patriot: Governor Smith Replies.” The words were Smith’s, but the ideas were Duffy’s. To be on the safe side, Judge Proskauer first showed the text to Cardinal Patrick Hayes, who read it and pronounced it “good Catholicism and good Americanism.” Marshall had raised the issue of the teaching in papal encyclicals. Smith replied: “By what right do you ask me to assume responsibility for any statement that may be made in any encyclical letter?” With transparent sincerity, he added: “I and all my children went to a parochial school. I never heard of any such stuff being taught or of anybody who claimed that it was.”
Al Smith could hardly deny that union of church and state was the ideal that was enshrined in papal encyclicals. But Smith replied that this ideal applied only to purely Catholic states, and that such states no longer existed anywhere in the world. “I think that you have taken your thesis from [the] limbo of defunct controversies,” Smith told Marshall. Essentially Smith was telling Marshall that the teaching of 19th-century popes about the union of church and state was no longer official church teaching, because the church had quietly dropped it as no longer applicable in the modern world, least of all in the United States.
Virtually every newspaper in the country agreed that Smith’s article was a devastating rebuttal of Marshall and that Smith won the debate. One of Marshall’s friends even taunted him by telling him: “I am sure that you are destined to go down in history as the man who elected Al.” Another person wrote: “As one Episcopalian to another my suggestion would be to find your own solace in obscurity, and as rapidly as possible.” A Presbyterian minister asked in all seriousness: “Are you one of the Smith undercover men?” “Personally,” he added, “I don’t think it possible for you to rid yourself of the suspicion that the whole thing is a plant to aid Al Smith.”
Poor Charles Marshall. He was completely routed by the combination of Al Smith and Father Duffy. But Charles Marshall actually had a point, a very good point. He kept insisting that the statements of Smith and Duffy about religious freedom reflected their own personal opinions, not the official teaching of the Catholic Church. And Marshall was correct about that. Smith and Duffy asserted that the teachings of the 19th-century popes on religious liberty were no longer operative (as a 20th-century presidential press secretary might put it), but they could not cite a single authoritative church document to prove their assertion. There was no such document, as Charles Marshall was well aware.
“Governor Smith, even plus the Reverend Father Duffy, is not the church,” Marshall maintained. Marshall received support from an old friend, Dr. Joseph G. H. Barry, who commented that “Al’s statements would probably have led him to the stake in the Middle Ages, whereas in the twentieth century they will perhaps lead him to the presidency.” Unknown to Marshall, and perhaps to Smith and Duffy as well, Cardinal Hayes sent a copy of Smith’s article to Cardinal John Bonzano in Rome. Bonzano, the former apostolic delegate to United States, called the article a capolavoro, a masterpiece, and added, “It was judged such by everyone here who knows conditions in America.”
It is not likely that the private comment of one curial cardinal would have cut much ice with Charles Marshall. But Marshall left open one slim possibility, one farfetched option that the Catholic Church might employ to convince him and other skeptics that the church was now committed to supporting religious freedom. That option, which seemed infinitely remote in 1927, was for the pope to reconvene the Vatican Council of 1869-70, and for the council to declare solemnly its acceptance of religious liberty. Marshall really did not expect that to happen.
But that infinitely remote possibility came to pass, in a slightly altered form, in 1959, when Pope John XXIII announced his intention of summoning an ecumenical council. It was not to be a resumption of Vatican I, but a brand new council, to be known as the Second Vatican Council. Among the most important documents that this council was to issue was the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” (1965). How Al Smith and Father Duffy would have welcomed it! How they would have loved to be able to quote it in 1927. How surprised Charles Marshall would have been to see it.
For the first time in its long history, in the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” the Catholic Church stated unambiguously that “the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion in such wise that in matters religious no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.... The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed Word of God and through reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed. Thus it is to become a civil right (No. 2).”
Never before had the highest authorities of the Catholic Church expressed such unqualified approval of the rights of conscience of every individual. Prior to Vatican II the official teaching of the church was that error should not be accorded the same rights as truth. The “Declaration on Religious Liberty” stated: “[T]he right to religious freedom has its foundation, not in the subjective disposition of the person, but in his very nature. In consequence, the right to this immunity continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth and adhering to it” (No. 2).
The council did not merely say that the state should not coerce people in religious matters. It also declared that “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person” and that this right “continues to exist even in those who do not live up to their obligation of seeking the truth.” To paraphrase the council, error may not have rights, but people who are in error do have rights. Moreover, the council implied, if it did not explicitly state, that the Catholic Church should no longer try to use the power of the state to favor Catholicism to the disadvantage of other religious groups, a tactic that the Catholic Church had been employing since the days of Constantine.
Charles Marshall was long dead and forgotten by the time of Vatican II, but in the 1940’s and 1950’s he had a worthy successor in the person of Paul Blanshard, a lawyer and social activist who never missed an opportunity to cry alarm at the threat that Catholicism posed to American democracy. His best-known work, American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949), sold over a quarter-million copies. Unlike Marshall, who was a committed Christian, Blanshard was an atheist, something that his Protestant allies only discovered to their embarrassment toward the end of his life.
Although Blanshard wrote a book on Vatican II, he viewed the council with Voltairean disdain and minimized the impact of its pronouncements. After all, as he admitted years later in his autobiography, what he desired was not the renewal of Catholicism, but the extinction of Christianity, “the most spurious of all the great religions.” “The Declaration on Religious Liberty” was a hot potato for Blanshard to handle. He subjected the text to casuistic analysis, questioned the motives of the bishops who approved it, doubted its effectiveness in Catholic countries like Spain and Portugal and characterized it as “conditional, ambiguous, and inadequate.” Nevertheless, even Paul Blanshard had to concede, reluctantly and with ill grace, the revolutionary character of the declaration. “It will make the struggle for religious liberty throughout the world easier,” he admitted. “From now on every libertarian can cite an official Catholic pronouncement endorsing the principle of liberty.”
When challenged by reporters or fellow politicians, Al Smith was fond of replying, “Let’s look at the record.” To some extent, as Charles Marshall insisted, both Governor Smith and Father Duffy fudged the record of the Catholic Church on religious liberty in 1927. A kinder critic might say that they anticipated the record by almost 40 years. In any event, the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” provided the authoritative pronouncement for which Father Duffy was grappling when he declared, “We are Catholics and we are Americans, and to both loyalties we stick.” “The Declaration on Religious Liberty” eliminated a longstanding source of suspicion and friction from American political life, and for that happy development not only Catholic politicians, but all Americans can be grateful to the Second Vatican Council.