At the time, this inflammatory claim was only the speculation of an ardent anti-Catholic, but just over a decade later, when political upheaval in Italy drove Pope Pius IX from Rome, it was widely reported that “the influential Catholics of New York” had invited him to make their country the new seat of his power.
“The relative weight in the scale of importance between the two Hemispheres,” a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer opined in 1849, “would be changed the moment the Pope’s foot had touched American soil.”
While the pope did not, in fact, join the influx of Catholic immigrants that transformed American culture in the years that followed, he became all the more common in the press. Yet even as “American popery” was supposedly on the rise, the pope himself was now invariably shown as diminished. Thomas Nast’s widely circulated caricatures depicted the pope no longer as a world-bestriding menace, but an ineffectual bumbler ill-equipped for modern times. One memorable picture showed a portly pontiff claiming “I am infallible” while clutching an umbrella as his only defense against a locomotive speeding his way.
The pope’s loss of temporal power, coupled with the ascendancy of the United States on the global stage, soon allowed for a reassessment of the what he might mean as the 20th century began. Most influentially, a 26-year-old son of Protestant missionaries named Henry Luce began to feature the Bishop of Rome in a positive light in his weekly news magazine. The June 16, 1924 issue of Time bore not only a sympathetic portrait of Pope Pius XI on the cover, but a feature story that so plainly intended to repackage the pope for U.S. readers that it referred to him as “a Pontiff who permits baseball to be played in the Vatican grounds.”
The subsequent, half-century-long rise of the pope as a favorite subject of national newsweeklies, including an issue of Life devoted to Paul VI’s New York visit and rapturous coverage of John Paul II on more than a dozen covers of Time, was owed mainly to Luce’s perception of the Vatican as ally in his anti-Communist crusade.
However, it also ensured that the pope would ever after need to navigate the waters of celebrity-driven media culture if he was to be judged favorably in the court of American popular opinion. Armed with a matinee idol’s good looks, the former actor John Paul II was a natural in this role; Benedict XVI far less so; while the frumpy and unassuming Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio surprisingly mastered it in his first few days on the job.
Like many popes before him, Francis’s presence in the United States was felt from the moment of his election. Unlike many others, however, he has from the start radically remade popular perceptions about who and what a pope should be.
Shortly before Benedict XVI resigned early in 2013, Showtime announced plans for a series set at the Vatican. In the script for the pilot, the pope is depicted as a decadent insider so clueless about optics that he fawns over bejeweled satin slippers and claps with delight when presented with a nine-foot-tall chocolate Jesus, “scripturally correct in every detail.” The show was canceled before it aired, the same week Time highlighted Francis’s avoidance of ecclesiastic excess when naming him “Person of the Year.”
Yet the media desire to craft papal images will not likely end now that the current pope is ready for his U.S. close up. HBO recently announced that it, too, has a Vatican drama in the works. It will tell the story of another first American pope—this one played by Jude Law. If the miniseries makes it to the screen, the American people may finally have the pontiff they have always seemed to want: a tabloid-ready spiritual leader, effortlessly charismatic, but with a reputation as a cad.