An Open Letter to the Honorable Alfred E. Smith


The Mexican situation has brought the claims of the Roman Catholic Church into great prominence in this country. It is inevitably linked with issues that will concern the Executive Office at Washington for the next term. We have been very fully advised of the claims of the Church in the matter through the official opinion of that eminent jurist and Roman Catholic, Mr. William D. Guthrie, of the American Bar, prepared at the request of the Roman Catholic Hierarchy of America and extensively circulated.

Mr. Guthrie challenges the right of Mexico to enact into her constitution the provision that 'the Mexican law' recognizes no juridical (that is, juristic) personality in the religious institutions known as churches.'

It must be borne in mind that this provision is not a statutory enactment of administrative law under a constitution—it is a part of the constitution itself, of the organic law legally adopted by the political sovereignty of the Mexican people, absolute and supreme in creating their constitutional conditions. The opinion claims that this provision violates international law, the principles of liberty and justice of the civilized world and of American constitutional law. If the opinion is right, then a political sovereignty, convinced that its existence is best served by the constitutional elimination of churches as juristic personalities, cannot lawfully proceed so to decree in its constitution.

Further, Mr. Guthrie maintains: 'The Roman Catholic Church is not opposing the separation of Church and State in Mexico, provided that such separation be not a sham or screen, and will leave the Church free to teach the Gospel, to educate children, and inculcate sound and true spiritual doctrine and moral rules of conduct, without dictation from or supervision by government officials, and subject to reasonable police regulation.'

The opinion proceeds upon the theory that the Roman Catholic Church should determine, in case of conflict with Mexican sovereignty, what are 'sound and true spiritual doctrine and moral rules of conduct.' The political teaching of Pope Leo XIII or the Syllabus of Pope Pius IX would be regarded as sound and true by the Roman Catholic Church, but it would in reason be regarded as suicide by the autonomous Mexican State—or any other State.

Mr. Guthrie enthusiastically quotes Lord Acton: 'Where ecclesiastical authority is restricted, religious liberty is denied.' And he invokes public opinion in the United States, and international opinion generally, in a protest against the Mexican constitutional and legal situation, because, be says, it is 'in clear conflict with the basic doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, and the deep belief of her members, that she is ecumenical and universal in the very sense and scope of the belief that all people ought to worship God, and that their Church (the Roman Catholic Church) was founded by Christ, true God and true Man, for the governance of all men living under the skies.'

The claim here asserted for the Roman Catholic Church is exclusive of every other religious foundation as having any spiritual rights under the Saviour of Mankind; and it is bluntly asserted in a word that connotes a sovereign jurisdiction in theory over all men in spiritual affairs without regard to their assent. It is the last official promulgation of the ancient and dangerous theory of the Two Powers.

Americans, as well as other peoples, may deplore the Mexican standard of what is inconsistent with the peace and order of the State; but we submit that the application of the Mexican standard by the Mexican people in Mexican affairs, in the assertion of an undisputed national sovereignty within its own territory and over its own people, cannot be held contrary to reason, and null and void in law, however much it may impugn the sovereign claims of the Roman Catholic Church, afford a minority a reason for rebellion, or offend the sentiments of other nations.

Mr. Guthrie's appeal opens up international questions of a grave character. He assures us that the problem of dealing with the Mexican situation 'is extremely delicate and complex'; that the Mexicans are 'resentful of foreign advice or interference, especially on our part'; that 'our treatment at times has inflamed a sensitive and proud people to intense indignation'—and so forth.

In all this may inhere a long series of unhappy international episodes. Into the complex of prejudice and resentment of a sensitive and proud people, according to Mr. Guthrie we are to project American opinion that the Mexican Constitution is intolerable because it invades the prerogatives of the ecumenical and universal Roman Catholic Church. We are, by the expression of American opinion, to invade the sovereign rights of Mexico and at the same time to register our own surrender of religious liberty de jure to the claims of that Church.

How serious might be the crisis, if Mr. Guthrie's premises were to be accepted by the people of the United States, is seen in his declaration that 'many historical precedents of action on the part of the Government of the United States of America, as well as of other countries, could be cited which would abundantly support a protest or remonstrance, and even armed intervention, at the present time in Mexico, in order to assure to the Mexican people religious liberty.' Armed intervention!—and, Mr. Guthrie goes on to explain, the Papacy and the Mexican Hierarchy refrain from asking for it, not because it is unlawful and unreasonable, but because 'history admonishes them of the horrors of civil war and of the danger of inviting interference by foreign powers and arms to compel what the aggressors conceive to be either religious liberty or the only true faith.' It is clear that Washington is saved an international episode only out of considerations of expediency and policy by the Papacy and the Mexican Hierarchy.

'To this Society (the Roman Catholic Church),' wrote Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical letter on The Christian Constitution of States, 'the only begotten Son of God entrusted all the truths which He had taught in order that it might keep and guard them and with lawful authority explain them, and at the same time He commanded all nations to hear the voice of the (Roman Catholic) Church as if it were His own, threatening those who would not hear it with everlasting perdition.'

It is the voice of that Church that speaks to America by the American Hierarchy in the words of its distinguished counsel in the Mexican situation; and your fellow citizens are concerned to inquire what authority you ascribe to that voice.


We have no desire to impute to the Roman Catholic Church aught but high and sincere motives in the assertion of her claims as one of the Two Powers. Her members believe in those claims, and, so believing, it is their conscientious duty to stand for them. We are satisfied if they will but concede that those claims, unless modified and historically redressed, precipitate an inevitable conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the American State irreconcilable with domestic peace. With two illustrations—and those relating to English Christianity—we have done.

In the sixteenth century the decree of Pope Pius V in terms deposed Elizabeth, Queen of England, from the English throne and absolved her subjects, from their allegiance. The result is well known. Much that pertained to the venerable forms of religion in the preceding centuries became associated in the popular mind of England with treason—even the Mass itself when celebrated in the Roman form. Roman Catholics were oppressed in their rights and privileges. Roman Catholic priests were forbidden within the realm. The mills of God turned slowly, but they turned. The Roman Catholics of England endured the penalties of hostile legislation with heroic fortitude and resignation. Public opinion slowly changed and gradually Roman Catholic disabilities were removed, and in 1850, under Cardinal Wiseman, the Roman Catholic Hierarchy was restored in England, with no other condition than that its sees should not use the ancient titles that the Hierarchy of the Church of England had retained. Peace and amity reigned within the realm, irrespective of different religions, and domestic repose marked a happy epoch.

But the toleration and magnanimity of England bore strange fruit. Scarcely was the Roman Hierarchy restored to its ancient privileges when the astounding Apostolic Letter of Pope Leo XIII Appeared (1896), declaring to the world that the orders of the Church of England were void, her priests not priests, her bishops not bishops, and her sacraments so many empty forms.

But this was not all. Reaching hands back through three centuries, the Roman Pontiff drew from obscurity the case of John Felton, an English citizen who in 1570, contrary to the law of treason at that time on the statute book of England, posted on the walls of London the decree of Pope Pius V already referred to, deposing the English Queen. Felton was beatified in 1886 by the act of Pope Leo XIII.

The honors paid him were rendered three hundred years after his treasonable act. There lies their sinister import. They are no part of the mediaeval milieu; they belong to the modern world and must have judgment not by mediaeval but by modern standards. One would have supposed, in view of the critical situation in modern States in relation to the respect for authority of government and the obedience of citizens to the law, that the beatification might have been omitted. One would have supposed that the changes in political thought and theory through three hundred years would have dictated the wisdom of letting the dead past bury its dead, and the memory of blessed John Felton rest in peace with those abandoned political doctrines that inspired his heroic but unhappy deed.

Is the record of the Roman Catholic Church in England consistent, sir, in your opinion, with the peace and safety of the State?

Nothing will be of greater satisfaction to those of your fellow citizens who hesitate in their endorsement of your candidacy because of the religious issues involved than such a disclaimer by you of the convictions here imputed, or such an exposition by others of the questions here presented, as may justly turn public opinion in your favor.

Yours with great respect,

See Governor Alfred E. Smith's response to this letter in the May 1927 Atlantic.

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