by D. G. Hart
Cornell University Press
280 pp., $29.95
“What the hell is an encyclical?” is probably the most honest and articulate response ever uttered by a Catholic politician in the United States. It was mouthed by New York’s first Catholic governor, Al Smith, in response to the challenge of a Protestant American establishment referencing, among other papal documents, Pope Leo XIII’s Testem benevolentiae
. The Protestant group had asked Smith whether a Catholic could be the chief executive of a nation that specifically disallowed the establishment of religion at the federal level.
Al Smith was no saint, and he most certainly was no intellect; but New York’s Catholic governor—like Catholic politicians ever since—sought to justify the faith of his baptism with the creed of the American Republic. Unlike today’s politicians, Smith didn’t always presume to know what he didn’t, and reconciling America’s political system with the Catholic magisterium was beyond his purview.
The tension between...
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