The Pope, The New York Times, and the Painful Reality of Being Outnumbered

Back in 2005, just after Pope Benedict XVI took over leadership of the Catholic Church, my local newspaper came out with the following headline:

“Centuries of Catholicism and Still No American Pope”

From a historical perspective, this is a rather curious headline.  What, the Catholic Church has slighted Americans for more than two millennia now?   I guess that back in the 7th  or 11th or 15th centuries, if the Catholic Church had just tried hard enough, it could have figured out how to make a Navajo or a Cherokee or a Shawnee a pope.  Instead, those cardinals just kept picking some Italian guy.

The non-American Pope Benedict XVI

OK, that curious headline could just be the result of a local editor who was in a hurry and wasn’t thinking clearly.  But it reflects a very real way of thinking:  many Americans, whether they are Catholic or not, assume that the Catholic Church really ought to put a priority on listening to American Catholics.

Really?  Why should Americans be top dog in this fight?  Why should we think that the Catholic Church ought to choose an American as pope in the first place?  Consider this:  American Catholics make up 6% of the Catholics in the world.  Brazil, Mexico and the Philippines have more Catholics in their nation than the United States does.  If anyone deserves to make an argument based on national identity it would be one of these other nations.  (Actually, it is problematic to try to define Catholicism, or any branch of Christianity for that matter, by national identity, but that’s a discussion for another time).

I don’t know who will be the next pope.  (I am intrigued that a Nigerian, Francis Arinze, has been discussed as a candidate.  That would be an interesting selection.)  And I don’t know what the conclave thinks about these issues of national identity.  As a Protestant, I will leave that for the Catholics to work out among themselves.  (I’m sure the Vatican is relieved).  However, it is worth pointing out how our identity as Americans can sometimes lead us to take a rather self-centered view of things.

For instance, one might think that The New York Times, a cosmopolitan paper of some sophistication, with very good international news coverage, would take a global view of the Catholic Church.  But one would be wrong.  With the upcoming selection of a new pope on

All the News that Is Fit for Americans to Print

its mind, The New York Times released the results of a poll on Wednesday morning of this week.  The Times polled American Catholics, asking what they thought of the Church and the pope.  The tenor of the story was that many American Catholics want a younger pope who is more open to what the Times calls “modern” ideas – and that the church hierarchy today is out of touch with the people.  Being good journalists, the Times story included quotes from ordinary Catholics in ordinary places like Des Moines, Iowa.  They quoted a Catholic woman from Fort Wayne, Indiana who said the cardinals are not in touch with their lives.  “I don’t think they are in the trenches with the people,” she said.

Now, this is a helpful article and poll, in some ways.  We learn what American Catholics think.  We have a problem, though:  the article never mentioned Catholics outside of the U.S.  The Times never mentioned that American Catholics only make up 6% of the global Catholic population.  The underlying assumption of the article?   The Catholic Church ought to listen to Americans.

If we really wanted to know what ordinary Catholics believe, we don’t go to Fort Wayne and Des Moines.  We go to Sao Paulo and Manila and Nairobi.  And what do the Catholics in Brazil and the Philippines and Kenya want?  Do they agree with American Catholics, or do they want something else?  Do these people agree that they want a younger, more modern pope?  Do they think that cardinals are out of touch with the people in the trenches?  Maybe, maybe not.  What do they want in a new pope?   We don’t know.   I wish we did.

The New York Times doesn’t get it. (It gets some things, but religion is usually not one of them).  Assuming that American Catholics ought to have top priority in shaping the Catholic Church is like assuming that the state of Georgia ought to have top priority in shaping the policies of the federal government in Washington D.C.

We need to recognize that world Christianity challenges Americans and Europeans just by its very existence.  We misread the world if we continue to assume that Christianity is primarily a western religion.  Africa now has more Christians (380 million) than the United States has people (300 million).  Asia has 320 million Christians and Latin America has 480 million.  The center of gravity of Christianity, ladies and gentlemen, has shifted from North America and Europe to Africa, Latin America and Asia.

You know what that means for American Christians?  We are outnumbered. We are a minority in our own faith.

Quite frankly, this is a painful reality for us to digest.  We Americans, especially if we are white, are not used to thinking about being outnumbered.  We tend to view the world through the political, economic and cultural power of the United States.  Sometimes we think that the whole world revolves around us.  Yes, the Christian virtue of humility is a really, really difficult thing to attain.  I have a very difficult time with humility, personally.  (Hmm.  Perhaps my snarkiness in this very blog is evidence of this.)  America, as a culture, has a very difficult time with humility, as well.  It will take quite a bit to get us to shed these forms of self-centeredness.

My litmus test:  we will have made a huge step forward when my local newspaper comes out with a headline that says, “Centuries of Catholicism and Still No Filipino pope.”


What Thaddeus Stevens Did Not Say About Abraham Lincoln

“The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”  —  Thaddeus Stevens.   Supposedly.


Toward the end of “Lincoln,” Thaddeus Stevens shows his African-American mistress a copy of the 13th Amendment and utters the above line.  It’s a great quote.  It embodies the essence of Spielberg’s film.  It captures so much about politics.  It frames the film’s conception of Lincoln, the quest for abolition, and Stevens’ rhetoric.

And that’s why it is too bad that he did not say it.

If you Google Thaddeus Stevens and the phrase “aided and abetted” you will get a lot of people explaining how Thaddeus Stevens said this.  About 682,000 hits.  That’s a lot of people repeating one another about this little bit of history.  (Truth in Advertising:  I did not check them all, but I am willing to bet that just about all of them attribute them to Thaddeus Stevens).   But I am 93.7% sure that he did not say this.

I know that historians spend too much time ruining good stories.  In graduate school I discovered that so many of the great quotes and anecdotes and stories I told when I taught high school history probably never happened.  For instance, I used to mine the highly entertaining historical series by Will and Ariel Durant, The Story of Civilization, for all sorts of funky stories about ancient Rome and Greece.  (The descriptions of the grotesque games the Romans set up in the Coliseum were particularly fascinating).  Turns out, though, that those books are notoriously unreliable.  Bummer.

And now, Thaddeus Stevens?  I’m afraid so.

When I first saw the film, I figured that Spielberg or one of the writer’s had made the quote up.    It didn’t fit with what I know Stevens, who had been a harsh critic of Lincoln for years.  I couldn’t imagine Stevens calling Lincoln “pure” unless he said it sarcastically.

Would Thaddeus Stevens have taken kindly to getting misquoted?

Then I did a quick internet search and discovered that Thaddeus Stevens really did say this.  The internet sites referenced a couple of books by historians.  Oh.  OK.

But……I was still a bit suspicious because, well, I am a product of graduate school.  I started digging a bit more.  I knew the film took a lot from Doris Kearns Goodwin, so I checked out, Team of Rivals.  I couldn’t find the quote there.  I went back to the internet and found several people referencing a book entitled Thaddeus Stevens and the Fight for Negro Rights by somebody named Milton Meltzer.  I was not familiar with him or the book.  So I kept looking.

Then on an Amazon site I saw that Paul D. Wolfowitz had written that the quote came from someone else.  What a minute.  That Paul D. Wolfowitz?  The deputy Defense secretary under Bush, who pushed so hard to get us into Iraq, has been spending time on Amazon critiquing books about Lincoln?  Or is it just somebody else who says  they were Paul D. Wolfowitz?  Either way, I had trust issues here.  So I had to dig some more.

I found Meltzer’s book.  He wrote books for young adults, so his book did not have footnotes.  Auuggh.  This is why we need footnotes.  I checked Allen Guelzo’s biography, Redeemer President.   He had the quote and his footnote referred to a book by Fawn Brodie.  I checked David Donald’s acclaimed biography of Lincoln and he also had the quote.  He referenced Fawn Brodie.  (This happens:  sometimes historians just quote one another if they have a clever little piece of history).  So I tracked down Fawn Brodie, who wrote Thaddeus Stevens:  Scourge of the South  in 1959.  She had the quote, which she got from an article on Thaddeus Stevens published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in April, 1898.  In that article James M. Scovel attributed the above quote to Stevens.  Paul D. Wolfowitz, even if it was a fake Paul D. Wolfowitz, was right.

That’s it.  As near as I can tell, all roads lead back to James Scovel.  Stevens died in 1868, but I can’t find any other source that gets the quote any closer to him than Scovel’s 1898 recollection.

Who was James Scovel?  He had been a state senator from New Jersey during the Civil

What? You don’t remember James M. Scovel? That’s OK. He doesn’t remember things very well, either.

War.  Lincoln appointed him to some sort of diplomatic mission to London.  Later he served in various political positions and then he became a Baptist evangelist who cooperated with Dwight L. Moody.  He also gave speeches about Lincoln’s religious character.  It seems he had well-developed rhetorical skills.  And he wrote an article about Thaddeus Stevens.

As a source, Scovel’s quote is of dubious merit.  Scovel does not say where the quote came from.  We don’t even know if Scovel knew Thaddeus Stevens.  And even if he did hear Stevens say something like this, there is the problem of memory.  How clearly and accurately are any of us able to remember something that somebody said thirty-three years earlier?  Every now and then my sister and I have conflicting memories about something that happened to us thirty-three years ago, which just goes to show you how unreliable my sister’s memories are.  (That’s a joke.  Don’t’ tell my sister).  We are on even shakier ground if we have to rely on the memory of politicians.

Actually, historians who work with oral histories know this.  When memories are checked against documented evidence, a fair amount of unreliability creeps into the oral histories, especially when it comes to precise details.  Cognitive psychologists know this, as well.

It’s possible that somewhere out there, some sort of documentary evidence exists to show that Thaddeus Stevens actually said this.  Until that time, I’m chalking the quote up to James Scovel’s rhetorical flourishes.  Sorry to spoil the party.