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Sitting at a writing-desk in the White House on December 11, 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt was an unhappy camper. In previous letters, he had addressed his correspondent as “Dear Maria.” Now, it was “Mrs. Storer” who would be on the receiving end of the presidential wrath.

Maria Longworth Storer was a busybody—and a highly placed one at that. Her husband, Bellamy Storer, was close to President William McKinley, and had helped get TR appointed assistant secretary of the Navy. Bellamy Storer then served McKinley as U.S. minister to Belgium and Spain; Roosevelt, succeeding McKinley after the latter’s assassination, appointed Mr. Storer U.S. minister to Austria-Hungary. But what prompted TR’s fury at an old friend’s wife had nothing to do with Washington-Vienna relations but with the Catholic Church: “Dear Maria” had morphed into “Mrs. Storer” because she was playing Vatican politics:

I have now seen your letter to me sent through Mrs. Roosevelt. In it you actually propose that I . . . should authorize you to go to Rome to take part in what I must call an ecclesiastical intrigue, and to drag the United States Government into it. Such a proposal is simply astounding. You say that Cardinal Merry del Val has stated that I have ‘requested that two archbishops,’ one [John] Farley [of New York], be made cardinals. All you had to say was that such a statement was a deliberate untruth, because you knew that I had refused to make such a request even for [John] Ireland [of St. Paul-Minneapolis]. You say in your letter, ‘You can trust me.’ How can you say this, when you write . . . a letter which if by accident published would absolutely represent, in the most mischievous manner, both me and the American Government?

You have no right to meddle in these matters. . . . [These activities are] utterly improper for . . . the wife of an American ambassador, and show a continued course of conduct on your part which is intolerable if your husband is to remain in the diplomatic service. . . . I have always positively and unequivocally refused directly or indirectly . . . to ask for the appointment of any man as Cardinal; and it would have been a gross impropriety for me to have made such a request, while it is an outrage to represent me as having, in any shape, made it.

Given the unlikelihood of Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, a diehard conservative, supporting a red hat for Archbishop John Ireland, leader of the liberal party in the U.S. Church, we may reasonably conclude that Mrs. Storer was not only a busybody and an ecclesiastical intriguer, but an inept one. Still, what struck me about this remarkable letter—the closest a gentleman of Roosevelt’s breeding could come to reading a distinguished lady the Riot Act—was the president’s rectitude in refusing, as a public official, to be drawn into matters that properly belonged to the Church, and to the Church alone.

That rectitude is a virtue that might well be emulated today, and in the weeks and months following Pope Francis’s pastoral visit to the United States.

Fifty-two years ago, John F. Kennedy, the first president baptized in the Catholic Church, was so nervous about anti-Catholic sentiment among voters that he refused to have his 1963 Roman visit to Pope Paul VI gazetted on the official presidential schedule; the meeting, it was said, was private. Things are different now—very different. Members of Congress think nothing of writing the pope, attempting to recruit him as a trophy chaplain for their particular legislative projects. It’s true that these solons are not, to my knowledge, trying to get this, that, or the other churchman named a cardinal (or denied a red hat). But the question of rectitude remains.

Today’s intrigues touch directly on the imperative of recognizing, and honoring, the uniqueness of the papal office and its integrity. A decent respect for the Bishop of Rome, who is the universal pastor of the Church and not a partisan political chaplain, suggests that all attempts to spin him for partisan point-scoring be regarded, in Roosevelt’s pungent phrase, as a “gross impropriety.”

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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