That New England was founded when and where it was ensured that, from the start, its settlers were locked inside a global drama of power and religion. To the North, French settlers were a constant menace; to the South, the Spanish commanded an enormous empire, confirmed by papal bull. Every ship brought news of the religious wars consuming Europe. Inside that drama, one enemy towered above all—the pope. To a people quick to fear central authority, the head of the Vatican seemed to have all the qualities of a perfect enemy—seemingly limitless power over kings and priests, legions of shadowy supporters, and a wardrobe full of pointy hats. Early New Englanders called the Catholic Church “the Harlot of Rome,” “the great whore,” and worse. Cotton Mather was convinced the papacy was the antichrist predicted in the Book of Revelation.
Things have calmed down since then, mercifully. Massachusetts is now the most Catholic state (44.9 percent) in the nation, having moved past Rhode Island in 2010. A pope celebrated Mass on Boston Common in 1979, and while it rained, there was no rain of toads. More recently, New England has found other reasons to welcome papal intervention in great affairs of state—and even helped it along. Last month, when the United States and Cuba announced their desire to renew relations after a fruitless 54-year standoff, Pope Francis was given credit for helping to broker the deal, with significant help from Cardinal Sean O’Malley and a Cambridge-based nonprofit group, Beyond Conflict.
That electrifying good news echoed an earlier intervention by a different pope, John XXIII, during one of the darkest passages of American history. The Cuban Missile Crisis, in October 1962, represented the high-water mark of the Cold War, and brought the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, eyeball to eyeball. Eventually, as we all know, reason prevailed, and war was avoided, by the narrowest of margins. Much credit was given to John F. Kennedy—our first and only Catholic president—for his adroit management of the crisis. But to a degree not recognized at the time, the pope also played a crucial role. Once again, the route to his involvement went through New England.
When the missile crisis struck, both Kennedy and John XXIII were already shaking up the old order. The Second Vatican Council opened Oct. 11, 1962, and began to sweep away some of the ancient rites, including the Latin Mass. Three days later, on Oct. 14, a U-2 plane flew over Cuba and captured photographic evidence of new Soviet missile installations, launching the crisis. Night after night, people held their breath, wondering if the world would end in conflagration. Billy Graham announced that the end times were beginning.
For most people reading the news, there was a sense of helplessness before these great events. But at Phillips Academy in Andover, a small conclave assembled that would prove to be highly relevant to the events taking place in Washington, Moscow, and Cuba. The so-called Dartmouth Conference was a gathering of American and Russian thinkers who had met annually since 1960 to improve relations between their countries. As these citizens watched the news, they resolved to do more than simply accept a slow descent into the unthinkable. A visiting priest from the Vatican, Father Felix Morlion, asked the Russians and Americans there if an intervention from the pope might help avert war. One of the Americans, a magazine editor named Norman Cousins, phoned the White House and spoke to Ted Sorensen, President Kennedy’s chief speechwriter. Sorensen confirmed that a papal statement might help, and soon, from Rome, a message went around the world, calling on the leaders to avoid a nuclear holocaust, and reminding them that the fate of all peoples was involved.
Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, later called that statement “the only gleam of hope” in a moment of near-total darkness. Russia’s Communist leaders were famously skeptical of religion, ordinarily. But the pope’s message resonated, and provided some much-needed diplomatic cover. Soon after, Khrushchev withdrew the missiles, and the world exhaled.
But the story does not end there. The missile crisis may have unfolded over the famous “Thirteen Days,” to borrow the title of Robert Kennedy’s memoir. But it’s now clear that it took the better part of a year to fully untangle. Well into 1963, the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union were making sure that they would never again come so close to the brink. Pope John XXIII was an essential ally, moving both publicly and behind the scenes to support their push for peace. That he was mortally ill did not diminish the impact of his words. At the height of the Missile Crisis, he conceived of the need to write out a special document about peace. On April 11, 1963, he issued his great encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), which called for a “more human” world order, and broad human rights. He spoke not only to Catholics, but to “the whole human family,” and sketched a world that might someday value reason and equality over force. It was the first papal encyclical to be published in its entirety in The New York Times.
The pope died on June 3, just before President Kennedy delivered his greatest speech, on June 10, at American University. By calling for a new philosophy of coexistence with the Soviet Union, he effectively ended the most dangerous phase of the long Cold War, and made possible the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty that would be signed later that summer. It was a fitting coda to the pope’s unexpected immersion in US foreign policy, and echoed some of the language of Pacem in Terris, asking for “the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living.”
That speech showed how politics can defy expectations. During the 1960 campaign, the fear that the first Catholic president would be influenced by the pope had risen to a kind of national paranoia, fanned by evangelicals and anti-Kennedy partisans in the South and West. Kennedy had taken the fear seriously enough that he gave a major speech in Houston, declaring his own personal separation of church and state. Ironically, by 1963 the pope had influenced him far differently than he or anyone would have expected, in a theater—the prevention of nuclear war—where few would have anticipated it.
More than half a century later, much has changed. The pope hails from the Americas. The Cold War is ancient history. Russia annoys the United States, but can never threaten us as it once did. We do not expect the pope to intervene in the business of great nations. But as Francis showed last month with the Cuban breakthrough, there are moments when he can improve the conversation.
Francis has appeared to be a worthy heir to John XXIII, gathering the faithful with his humanity and a spirit that appears more inclined to forgive than chastise. When he canonized John XXIII last April, he praised him for a willingness to think anew, a message Francis clearly has taken to heart. Since last fall, he has swung the church into a more comfortable position of coexistence with evolution. And as 2015 begins, he is sending signals that he is ready to change the climate again, this time by calling for greater attention to the environment.
Last week’s announcement of new cardinals included a significant number from places affected by rising seas, and next week the pope will travel to the Philippines, reeling from recent typhoons. Sometime in the first half of 2015, Francis will distribute an encyclical on the environment, with the intention of encouraging the climate negotiations to take place at the United Nations in September (where he will go in person), and in Paris in December. It could be an exciting year.
Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University and a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation. He is an Ideas columnist.