Part 2: On Reagan’s Catholic Father—My Response to Your Responses

Last week I posted an article on Jack Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s Catholic father, who delegated the duty of faith-rearing to his Protestant wife, Nelle—who excelled at the task. I asked CatholicVote readers for their thoughts on the matter. They responded enthusiastically. I really enjoyed the comments, except for the harsh ones, which, frankly, reminded me of some of the Protestant fundamentalists I used to go to church with.

I’ve decided not to wade in to the theology over whether Jack Reagan’s decision was right. I’m a historian first and foremost. I’ll stick with what I know. And keeping it at that level, I thought I’d respond to a few of the emails, where maybe I can shed some light:

One comment (the first) came from “Frank,” who wrote: “How did Reagan’s religiosity enter into his selection of Sandra Day O’Connor, who repeatedly voted for pro-abortion rights during her time in the Arizona state legislature, as his first nominee to the Supreme Court? Does ‘ecumenical’ extend to his wife’s tarot card readings and support for stem cell research, too?”

I will not go into Nancy Reagan’s faith, which is an eye-opening subject unto itself. In my book God and Ronald Reagan, I have a full chapter on her consulting astrologers during her husband’s presidency. Her beliefs are indeed, to put it charitably, unorthodox. And her support of embryonic research, in her husband’s name, is plainly outrageous.

As to the choice of Sandra Day O’Connor, an excellent explanation was provided in the next comment, by John Jakubczyk, who wrote:

“unfortunately for us, the nation, and millions of unborn children, Reagan relied upon and trusted in the people who were given the responsibility to vet O’Connor and determine her opinions and beliefs. She herself did nothing to dissuade those who interviewed her from falsely concluding that she was anti-abortion. She referenced her friendship with Dr. Carolyn Gerster, one of the founders of the NRLC, and mentioned how their sons were in various organizations together, their common affiliations, and later told the president that she would never embarrass him while he was president (something she honored, when one reads her dissent in the Akron case). Note that they never did contact Dr. Gerster or any of us at Arizona Right to Life prior to making her announcement public. Further, once the White House did announce her nomination, they refused to consider the evidence we provided of her pro-abortion votes while she was in the state senate. Local Republicans were so “proud” of having another Arizonan on the high court that they dismissed our concerns and opposition to the nomination. Drs. Gerster and Wilke testified against the nomination during the confirmation hearings, but the idea of the first woman on the high court was too intoxicating for the establishment and pro-life concerns were rebuffed. It was another example of the two edged sword in Reagan’s delegation style of leadership. And in this case the sharp end of the sword wounded the movement terribly.”

John is exactly right. The Reagan staffers who were supposed to do the vetting, including Attorney General William French Smith, failed to do the vetting. In discuss this in my biography of Reagan’s closest aide, William P. Clark, a devout Catholic who could’ve taken the Supreme Court seat that went to O’Connor (if Clark wanted the seat, which he didn’t). Clark likewise talked to O’Connor before her nomination, but mainly about kids, grandkids, horses, life. Clark assumed that Smith asked the hard questions about abortion. That was a fatal assumption.

Beyond the vetting, I was not aware of John Jakubczyk’s information about the input of Arizona Right to Life. Thanks, John, I will hang on to this information.

Another response of interest where I can shed some historical light came from “Markrite,” who wrote:

“There are several reasons that I’ve never joined the ranks of the secular Reagan canonizers, but one of the reasons clinched it for me as to WHY I didn’t. In 1967, Reagan as governor of California signed into law the MOST terrible of laws that later laid the groundwork, as did the later New York state law, for the passage of ROE V. WADE. And I can remember to this day reading of the California Bishops PLEADING with then-governor Reagan to NOT SIGN the Calif. liberalization of abortion act. But he just wouldn’t do it, NOT SIGN, that is. And this was after his later-described agonizing soul-search to figure out WHAT TO DO; by signing this law into effect, though, Reagan laid the groundwork, once again, for ROE V. WADE. To me, it’s almost unconscionable that he did it.”

I certainly understand Markrite’s frustration, and I did not know that the California bishops had played that role. (If any readers have documentation of that, please send it my way.) That said, Reagan’s thinking is more complicated than that. Again, I cover it in The Judge, my biography of Bill Clark. Here is an excerpt:

On June 14, 1967, Governor Reagan signed a bill that permitted more abortions in California than in any state prior to the advent of Roe v. Wade. Once the Therapeutic Abortion Act of 1967 became law, the number of legal abortions in California boomed from 518 in 1967, Reagan’s first year in office, to an average of 100,000 per year from 1968 to 1974, the remaining years of his governorship.

How did this happen?

When the issue came to Reagan in those first months of his governorship, he was unsure how to react. Surprising as it may seem today, in 1967 abortion was not the great public issue it is now. Reagan later admitted that abortion had been “a subject I’d never given much thought to.” Likewise, his aides were divided on the question.

Reagan thus began to vigorously study the issue. He turned to Clark: “Bill, I’ve got to know more—theologically, philosophically, medically.” Clark loaded up the governor with reading materials. Reagan spent a weekend in semi-seclusion. [Official Reagan biographer] Edmund Morris said that “by the time the Therapeutic Abortion Act reached him on June 13, Reagan was quoting Saint Thomas Aquinas.” Reagan, years later, remarked that he did “more studying and soul searching” on the issue than any other as governor.

Reagan would become adamantly pro-life.

Nonetheless, he signed the bill, having been convinced by some people, including in his own party and staff, that he had successfully eliminated its worst features. Further, he calculated that if he vetoed the bill, his veto would be overridden by the state legislature. So, he might as well try to make the bill less harmful.

It became law. And as would happen in years ahead to nearly every abortion bill, the legislation contained a woman’s mental-health provision that was recklessly abused by patient and doctor alike, allowing runaway abortion. Even the bill’s Democrat sponsor later confessed to being surprised that physicians so liberally interpreted the law.

Reagan was shocked at the unintended consequences of his action. Morris said that Reagan was left with an “undefinable sense of guilt” after watching abortions skyrocket after signing the bill. [Reagan biographer Lou] Cannon claims this was “the only time as governor or president that Reagan acknowledged a mistake on major legislation.” Bill Clark called the incident “perhaps Reagan’s greatest disappointment in public life.”

For Reagan, there was one good thing that came from this incident. As noted by Matt Sitman, a Georgetown scholar who has studied this issue: “It is impossible to understand his later staunchly pro-life positions without grasping the lessons he learned from this early political battle.” Reagan survived the ordeal with a “profoundly intellectual understanding of the abortion issue…. It was in 1967 that his ideas concerning the beginning of human life were fully formed.” He now had “a cogent understanding” of abortion and its implications, politically and morally.

Clark says that a repentant Reagan emerged ready for battle, declaring, “When this subject arises again, we shall be prepared.” Clark was prepared. Once he became Reagan’s new chief of staff, Bill Clark would work to ensure that a similar mistake on abortion never happened again. For now, however, the damage was done.

So, there you go. All of this doesn’t change the impact of what Reagan did, but maybe it better explains how it happened.

Finally, there was this response to my original article, provided by a reader identified as “San Domenico:”

“I often felt that President and Mrs. Reagan were closet Catholics. Why? Because Mrs. Reagan’s mother lived here in Phoenix and was Catholic. I recall several occasions they would stop in Phoenix to visit her. They often attended Mass with her at St. Thomas the Apostle. This article gives me a little bit more insight into to the President’s other connections with Catholicism.”

This is very interesting. I would love to hear more about this. Ronald Reagan indeed had some very notable Catholic sympathies, which I continue to collect and write about, and will publish more in a forthcoming book that is still a few years ahead.

San Domenico, can you email me and tell me more about this? Or post more information below?

My thanks to everyone who commented on my article. CatholicVote has thoughtful readers. This forum is excellent.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand, God and Ronald Reagan, and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.

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One thought on “Part 2: On Reagan’s Catholic Father—My Response to Your Responses

  1. Egads says:

    Your overall response makes Reagan look really, really inept at best but your revelation that “On June 14, 1967, Governor Reagan signed a bill that permitted more abortions in California than in any state prior to the advent of Roe v. Wade” makes him look altogether complicit — a veritable founding father of abortion rights.

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