Catholics and Politics

Msgr. Thomas J. Shelley, in his article Vatican II and American Politics (10/13), evokes a most interesting interlude in American history involving the candidacy of Al Smith. If many Americans wondered whether Catholics would impose an official religion if they became a majority, Catholics themselves had no need to speculate concerning their Protestant neighbors in that regard, since they already knew the answer. As Martin Marty, Robert Handy, Philip Hamburger and others have shown so well, Americans for more than a century had imposed a de facto establishment of nondenominational Protestantism that denied true religious liberty to Catholics and other outsiders.

What James Madison feared actually came to pass. He knew that a Bill of Rights represented only parchment barriers against majority oppression. However, the advent of Catholics in great numbers brought what he saw as the necessary pluralism of opposite and rival interests that would inevitably supply the checks and balances necessary to preserve true liberty. By their fidelity, opposition and persistence, Catholics contributed immensely to the creation of modern religious liberty, and in doing so they transformed this country. In 1960 the United States, by a hair’s breadth, acknowledged that transformationthat Catholics could be and were truly Americans.


Catholic scholars appreciate the development of doctrine and the fact that Catholicism is a historically conditioned religion. But they have not yet been able to apply the same thinking to American religious liberty, which they tend to see as springing full blown from the First Amendment. In the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty (1965), the church declared that it would not impose an official religion if Catholics became the majority. But with the election of John F. Kennedy, America had already affirmed that it would not and could not continue to maintain the official religion it had established when the majority of Americans were Protestant.

Historians can see how the United States influenced Catholicism, but they can perceive much less clearly how Catholicism transformed the United States. When American Catholic historians are able to grasp the interrelationindeed interdependenceof these two developments, they will be far better able to find a significant place for Catholicism in the history of the United States than is currently the case.

(Most Rev.) Thomas J. Curry
Auxiliary Bishlop of Los Angeles
Santa Barbara, Calif.

As a California liberal Democrat, I found the article by Monsignor Shelley on the Second Vatican Council and American politics to be timely. Some popular Catholic political leaders are now being blasted by church conservatives for their political positions on such things as abortions and capital punishment. Our current leaders might want to read a page or two on how such men as Alfred E. Smith handled the issue: What the hell is an encyclical?

Bob Brower
Susanville, Calif.

Education and Opportunity

Your editorial Helping Head Start (10/20) raises the issue of the direction of education policy in the United States. There seems to be general agreement today on the preference for performance over compliance. Your editorial suggests that changing the funding for Head Start will strip the program of many fine qualities. Things get homogenized and monies raided when placed under state control.

As the House Republican bill is written, states are denied use of the funds for purposes not intended. Also, monies are delivered in block grants to states, with an experimental period starting with eight states. With the point of entry at the state level, there is a chance to arrange cooperative service among government, nonprofits and faith-based concerns. At present, religious organizations are prevented from hiring teachers and staff who share their beliefs. This will cease under the School Readiness Act of 2003.

The Federal Government underfunds Head Start, IDEA and No Child Left Behind. Still, small children, the disabled and minorities are served by these efforts. Unfortunately, research shows that benefits from Head Start diminish with time. Poverty’s harm increases or decreases with a person’s response to poverty. With a helping hand and the right response, a family’s future can improve.

Jeanne Kavanaugh
Chicago, Ill.

Cuba’s Other Side

In his article, Cuba’s Catholic Dissident: The Saga of Oswaldo Payá (10/20), Tim Padgett has failed to address the role of the Catholic Church as a staunch supporter of Batista and the ruling classes in Cuba prior to the revolution. It is disappointing to see this absence of accountability for the role of the church in a history of such violent and degrading human rights abuses. Perhaps your readers should be aware that the majority of Cubans are much better off now than they ever were when the Catholic Church had the freedom to preach its message.

The World Health Organization recognizes the great work that Cuba has done to bring health care and education to all its citizens. Human Rights Watch has criticized the Cuban exile community for its terrorist attacks on Cuba and assassination attempts on Castro, all of which were done with the support of the C.I.A. and the silence of the church. None of these terrorists who operate out of this country has been brought to justice.

The Varela Project has received much support from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, which has actively sought to create dissension through funding of private libraries, radio stations that pass on American propaganda and the referendum itself. If anyone were to act that way in this country, we would be outraged. I have lived too long and seen too much to remain silent when reporters report with blinders on. If you are going to report on something, then make it your business to get the whole story. More human rights abuses are occurring at Guantanamo Bay than in Cuba, but you are not talking about that.

Lynette Culverhouse
Arlington, Mass.

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