In April, Benedict XVI will make his first visit to the USA as pope. When he does, some will complain about clean-up costs, traffic snarls, rescheduled television shows and other inconveniences. Others will express (and the media will obsess about) their various disagreements with the pope’s writings and church teaching. And many millions will be inspired, comforted and encouraged by his work, life and witness, and by the theme of his new encyclical letter, “Saved By Hope.”
Today, thanks in part to Pope John Paul II’s globetrotting, evangelical papacy, visits by popes to America are occasions for reflection, celebration and souvenir-selling. In our not-so-distant past, though, papal invasions loomed large in all kinds of nightmare scenarios.
It is easy to forget but, from the Puritans to the Framers and beyond, anti-“popery” was thick in the cultural air breathed by the early Americans. Our forebears were raised on hair-raising tales of Armadas and Inquisitions, Puritan heroism and Bloody Mary, Jesuit schemes and Gunpowder Plots, lecherous confessors and baby-killing nuns. As the great historian John Tracy Ellis once observed, a “universal anti-Catholic bias was brought to Jamestown in 1607 and vigilantly cultivated in all the thirteen colonies from Massachusetts to Georgia.”
In the 1830s, Samuel Morse (who invented the telegraph) wrote a popular book, Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, warning that Irish immigration to American cities was part of a papal plan of conquest.
About the same time, Lyman Beecher ”” a Presbyterian minister and the father of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe ”” revealed, in his own A Plea for the West, that Catholic immigrants in the American West were laying the groundwork for the pope’s Mississippi Valley invasion. (Some tracts identified Cincinnati as the planned site for the new Vatican.)
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