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No More Catholic U.S. Presidents Likely? No U.S. Pope Likely? (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) March 21, 2018: In the book In Rome We Trust: The Rise of Catholics in American Political Life, translated by Marina Korobko (Stanford University Press, 2017; orig. Italian ed., 2016), Manlio Graziano notes that "President Dwight 'Ike' Eisenhower decided to insert the words under God in the pledge of allegiance to the flag and to adopt the new motto 'in God we trust'" (page 95). However, Graziano does not explain why he constructed the title of his book as a play on that motto. But it is a catchy title.

Graziano (born in 1958) teaches geopolitics at the American Graduate School in Paris, the Sorbonne, and the Geneva Institute of Geopolitical Studies. He is well-informed about popes and papal documents, on the one hand, and, on the other, about American cultural history in its larger cultural context.

In certain respects, Graziano's book is a follow up to Massimo Franco's book Parallel Empires: The Vatican and the United States -- Two Centuries of Alliance and Conflict, translated by Roland Flamini (Doubleday, 2008; orig. Italian ed., 2005).

But I admit that I have a hard time seeing the Roman Catholic Church as an empire in any serious sense of an empire -- it is not an empire on a par with the famous ancient empires or on a par with the famous modern empires. However, I can see describing it as a multinational corporation with franchises (known as dioceses) and franchise managers (known as bishops) worldwide. I can even see describing it as propagating the faith-based prophet motive -- which is not to be confused with the profit motive propagated by the capitalist economic system.

Graziano notes that Pope John Paul II's encyclical Centesimus anno (1991) recognizes the legitimate role of profit (page 130). But this recognition does not preclude criticizing the capitalist economic system, as Pope Francis does.

Despite my reservations about Franco's conceptualization of the Catholic Church as an empire, Graziano says, "the United States and the Catholic Church became, writes Massimo Franco, 'the only two Western realities capable of political projection on a world scale,' although with obviously different and often incompatible approaches, means, and purposes: 'parallel empires,' according to Franco's apt phrase. And for this reason, they were bound, let me repeat myself here, to meet only at infinity" (page 68).

But what in the world do Graziano and Franco mean by saying that the Roman Catholic Church is "capable of political projection on a world scale"? Granted, journalists cover the pope and the Vatican. So the pope and the Vatican receive media coverage. But is media coverage what Franco and Graziano mean by "political projection on a world scale"?

Now, Graziano completed his book manuscript around the end of 2015. Consequently, he has nothing to say about Donald J. Trump's presidential campaign in 2016. But Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" is obliquely related to Graziano's claim that America's global dominance is currently undergoing a downsizing process, at least in terms of economic dominance. I agree that America's economic dominance is currently undergoing a downsizing process, which in my estimate is irreversible because of the economic rise of other players in the global economy.

But Graziano makes and observation that strikes me as relevant to understanding why the majority of voters in the majority of states voted for him: "In the United States a panoply of optimistic philosophies has arisen over the centuries to encourage, feed, or merely depict the rise and the country's successes [in the global economy]; but the United States is philosophically unequipped for its decline [in the global economy]" (page 11).

As his subtitle announces, Graziano focuses on "The Rise of Catholics in American Political Life" on the national level. He is not interested in Catholics in local and state politics. In regard to national political prominence, he twice refers (pages 14-15 and 45) to Robert C. Christopher's book Crashing the Gates: The De-WASPing of America's Power Elite (Simon and Schuster, 1989). The acronym WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. From colonial times up to about the time of Senator John F. Kennedy's unexpected election in 1960, WASPs, and former Protestants, dominated the prestige culture in American culture -- and the political elite, as Christopher notes. However, as Graziano notes (page 97), President Kennedy's education was stereotypically WASPish (Choate and Harvard), and his cabinet was dominated by WASPs, except for his brother Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General.

According to Graziano, the number of Catholics in high political positions reached an all-time high under President Barack Obama (pages 8-9 and 145-146). OEN readers who are familiar with Damon Linker's book The Theocons: Secular America Under Siege (Doubleday, 2006) may be impressed with Graziano's detailed account of the rise of conservative American Catholics under President Ronald Reagan (page 126).

Now, Graziano sees President Kennedy's electoral victory in the 1960 presidential election as symbolically significant for American Catholics in general (pages 45 and 81). No doubt Senator Barack Obama's electoral victory in 2008 was symbolically significant for African-Americans. No doubt former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton's electoral victory in 2016 would have been symbolically significant for American women, but the majority of the voters in the majority of the states did not vote for her, even though she won the popular vote overall. Even though symbolically significant presidential victories undoubtedly have an impact on certain people, we may still wonder about the overall impact of symbolically significant presidential victories.

However, despite the symbolic significance of President Kennedy's election, Graziano argues that the Catholic bishops do not want another Catholic president, because he or she would most likely undermine the authority of the bishops.

Graziano says, "Kennedy's experience clarifies why the Church [i.e., the bishops] does not seem to be at ease with the idea of a Catholic president. Every American presidency is a window on the world; it is therefore understandable that, if the president is Catholic, the Church expects to be provided with a public image of the president's religion that is as close as possible to what Rome wants to convey (and of course with a guarantee of a number of the Church's interests [as determined by the bishops]). However, and though they may move in the same direction on certain specific issues, the United States and the Church have different purposes; it is therefore impossible for an American president, whatever his or her religious inclination, to follow the Vatican's agenda. So it is much better for Rome to avoid adding the complication of an unfaithful faithful to every other difficulty" (page 98; also see page 8).

Later, Graziano says, "What the Church [i.e., the bishops] does not want, in a nutshell, is a Catholic president who disagrees with its views; and since a president of the United States sooner or later will surely be in disagreement with the Church's positions, what the Church [i.e., the bishops] ultimately does not want is a Catholic president of the United States" (page 142).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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