The American Pope

Francis may be the first pontiff from the New World, but heirs to St. Peter’s throne have long loomed large in the American imagination.

L'Osservatore Romano / AP

When the chartered Alitalia jet known as “Shepherd One” touches down in Maryland this week, Pope Francis will become just the fourth leader of the Roman Catholic Church to visit the United States. As the only pontiff in history born in the Western Hemisphere, he has often been called the first American pope, though until now he has not crossed the borders such a title usually implies.

In this paradox—the American pope who has never been to the United States of America—he is perhaps better suited than any of his predecessors to contend with the contradictions of his faith in a country once considered so theologically suspect it had a heresy named after it. A little over 100 years ago, “Americanism” was a term applied within the Vatican to a litany of doctrinal lapses—including, in the words of Pope Leo XIII, “the assumed right to hold whatever opinions one pleases”—to which many Americans would plead guilty as charged.

If no other republic has earned the distinction of serving as shorthand for the perils of heterodoxy, it may be because the United States has long been the most Catholic of historically anti-Catholic countries. With nearly 70 million adherents, the Roman church is by far the largest religious denomination in a nation shaped by distrust of Rome from the start. For centuries, the pope more often received vilification from Americans than the sort of adulation awaiting Francis in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York.

Though the tradition of papal visits to the U.S. began only 50 years ago, when Pope Paul VI made a whirlwind tour of the United Nations, Yankee Stadium, and Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on October 4, 1965, the idea of the pope has been here much longer. In the prayers and jeers of his followers and detractors, the man considered by Catholics to be the successor to Saint Peter was a major player in American life from exploration to colonization to Independence; his shadow loomed over moments as distant from each other as the Revolution and the Cold War.

Through it all, the changing image of the pope in America has said as much about the nation’s shifting religious and political preoccupations as it has about the church for which he stands.

To the first Europeans in the land that would eventually become the United States, the pope’s rightful position within it was clear. He reigned over it all, they claimed, as he was assumed to reign over the entire earth. By the 1520s, expeditions into Florida were required to inform the peninsula’s inhabitants that God had chosen one man to be “Lord and Superior of all the men in the world.”

“This man was called Pope,” the Spanish explorers said. If the authority he granted to the Catholic monarchs of Spain was not accepted as absolute, they continued, “We shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can.”

Whatever might be said of the logic of issuing demands in a language incomprehensible to their intended audience, Rome’s easy reach across the ocean became an enduring cause for alarm as the Reformation splintered Europe into Catholic and formerly Catholic realms. A century later, when John Winthrop wrote his “Reasons for a Plantation in New England” in 1628, Catholicism’s dominance in the New World was first on the list. Explaining his desire to establish a foothold for Puritans on the far side of the Atlantic, he suggested their presence would “raise a bulwark against the kingdom of Anti-Christ,” who in the Protestant reading of scripture was understood to be the pope himself.

Within 20 years, the colony modeled on Winthrop’s vision of a biblical “city upon a hill” promised death to any Jesuits found in the province. Massachusetts ministers worried their pure faith might be infected by the “spice of popery,” while other colonies made the spread of Catholicism by “popish messengers” a crime punishable by “perpetual imprisonment.” Even Maryland, initially established as a safe haven for Catholics, passed laws prohibiting priests from opening schools or baptizing Protestant children.

As an alleged threat to the souls of future generations, the specter of the pope was a convenient bogeyman. English colonists might never meet any actual Catholics, but they could read endlessly about “Popery, that bane of civil and religious liberty,” in an18th-century press brimming with stories of “Romish” agents armed “with a crucifix in one hand and a dagger in the other.”

Fear of the pope also provided a common cause for an increasingly diverse population of American Protestants. With emigration becoming a distant memory for the descendants of the original colonists, Rome represented the jettisoned constraints of Europe, a reminder of a bloody and claustrophobic past now replaced by limitless possibility. Psychologically, it was only a short leap from rejecting the pope to questioning other hierarchies seen as obstacles to liberty, beginning with longstanding denominational affiliations, and culminating with the Crown.

By the eve of the American Revolution, the historian Thomas Kidd has noted, “popery” came to mean “not just Catholicism but every form of oppression.”

The drive of many early Americans to further separate themselves from Rome and all it represented was so great that it became ritualized in the form of Pope Night, an annual commemoration of the failure of the Catholic “Gunpowder Plot” to destroy the British Parliament in 1605. Called Guy Fawkes Day in England, the holiday in America was marked with effigies of the pope that were paraded through the streets, heaped with abuse, and then set alight.

“Look here! from Rome, the Pope has come, that fiery serpent dire,” the revelers sang, “We'll stick a pitchfork in his back, And throw him in the fire!”

Though imported along with other tropes of English anti-Catholicism, the celebration of November 5 was in some towns thought to be as unifyingly American as the Fourth of July would later become. The poet John Greenleaf Whittier described Pope Night as a joyful occasion for children of all denominations. “We have seen the children of our Catholic neighbors as busy as their Protestant playmates in collecting, by hook or by crook, the materials for Pope Night bonfires,” he wrote.

Once those fires were lit, Whittier continued, even adult Catholics who knew their import could not help but appreciate “the fine effect of the illumination,” and “the play and coruscation of the changeful lights on the bare, brown hills.” The “picturesque and wild beauty” of the scene could apparently make one forget whom the flames had consumed.

Even as the Revolution raged, Pope Night remained popular enough among Continental Army soldiers that George Washington had to ban the practice as “ridiculous and childish”—not to mention supremely impolitic at a time when he was courting the Catholics of Quebec to join the fight.

Such celebrations waned in the early republic, but the pope remained a volatile symbol, often employed to justify the era’s rampant anti-Catholic biases and violence. As Nancy Schultz recounts in Fire and Roses, her book about the burning of a convent near Boston in 1834, the mob shouted “Down with the pope!” as they gathered around the nuns’ residence. Days before, a rabble-rousing preacher had warned the city’s Protestants that Catholics were seeking “a site for the palace of the Pope and the Romish church” on American shores.

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.