FDR, the Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church in America, 1933-1945

By Garneau, James F. | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

FDR, the Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church in America, 1933-1945


Garneau, James F., The Catholic Historical Review


FDR, the Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church in America, 1933-1945. Edited by David B. Woollier and Richard G. Kurial. [The World of the Roosevelts.] (New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2003. Pp. xvii, 295. $59.95.)

The sixteen papers selected for this volume were among those originally presented at a memorable international conference held at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park and Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1998. The majority of the papers chosen by the editors are scholarly contributions by recognized experts, a few are by younger scholars and graduate students, and a couple of them might best be described as essays. Together, they represent a real contribution to a fascinating period, from the beginning of the New Deal to the closing days of World War II, in which religion and politics were entwined in new and complex relationships as American Catholics were increasingly and publicly recognized as wielders of potential and real political power. A presidential administration and a nation that were moving from a primarily isolationist stance to one of international involvement and leadership also began to reckon with the Holy See, whose international presence appeared to many non-Catholics to be increasingly significant.

Father Gerald Fogarty, S.J., of the University of Virginia, provides one of the most comprehensive studies encountered in this book. Entitled "Roosevelt and the American Catholic Hierarchy," it draws upon his earlier work, The Vatican and the American Hierarchy, adding interesting detail from the diary of Cardinal Spellman and from the Archivio Segreto Vaticano. His paper includes a survey of the relationship between the American hierarchy and the Holy See, beginning with the Wilson administration. One of the more intriguing conclusions supported by Fogarty's well documented research is that the "close alliance" between Roosevelt and American Catholics was lost by the end of the war, due to military exigencies "influenced by British policies" (such as the willingness to bomb Rome).

In some contrast to the scholarly style of Fogarty's contribution is the insightful essay by Michael Barone, a Senior Writer for U. S. News and World Report. Though filled with interesting observations, many helpful facts, and well written, his "Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Protestant Patrician in a Catholic Party" does not, unfortunately, provide notes to assist further research. While lauding FDR's ability to create a sustainable political coalition among Protestants, Jews, and Catholics, he focuses on the tensions between "this patrician Protestant and his heavily Catholic party."

The second section of the book, subtitled, "Catholic Friends/Catholic Foes: The New Deal and American Catholicism" provides an eclectic survey of loosely related issues in six papers. Anthony Burke Smith's "John A. Ryan, the New Deal, and Catholic Understandings of a Culture of Abundance," notes the ambivalence inherent in Ryan's use of Catholic social teaching to champion the New Deal. For while that tradition provided an ample base of support for the president's reform policies, it also provided a significant critique of the "consumer culture it spawned." "Al and Frank: The Great Smith-Roosevelt Feud," written by Robert Slayton, posits that Smith's rejection of those policies was primarily the result of personal animus. It was directed against FDR, who served in this instance as the "ultimate symbol of the fraud that was the American spirit." Slayton argues that Smith's rage against FDR was engendered by the bigotry and rejection of the American people that he experienced in 1928. While it is perhaps legitimate to explore this path of psychological analysis, it is also fair to ask if Smith's criticism of the New Deal could have been, in fact, more substantive than personal.

Steven M. Avella focuses on "California Catholics and the Gubernatorial Election of 1934," arguing that Sinclair Lewis' bid for state leadership was undermined by his militant anti-Catholicism and attacks on religion in general, as found in his earlier writings.

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