The relationship didn’t begin so warmly: “He had this background of being very fearful of Catholics,” said William Martin, a professor of sociology at Rice University who has written a biography of Graham.
Graham also wrote in his autobiography that when he held his first-ever televised evangelistic crusade in New York City in 1957, a Catholic magazine called his services dangerous for faithful Catholics.
Still, the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, had Graham by his side in 1961 as they bowed their heads at a prayer breakfast.
When one of Graham’s most prominent Catholic supporters, Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston, returned from a session of the Second Vatican Council in Rome, he met with Graham in a televised meeting, commended the evangelist’s ministry and encouraged Catholics to listen to him.
Soon after, the Council issued its “Decree on Ecumenism,” which referred to other Christian traditions as “separated brethren” and encouraged all Catholics to actively participate in ecumenical activities.
The new spirit of openness gradually defused tension in religious discourse in the United States. Graham forged relationships with Catholics up to and including Pope John Paul II, whom he met in Rome in 1981. His Billy Graham Evangelistic Association wouldn’t hold a crusade unless a majority of local churches, eventually including Catholic churches, invited him.
That didn’t go easily. The Rev. Joseph Hilinski, director of interfaith affairs for the diocese of Cleveland, recalls even in 1994, when Hilinksi served on the board of a Graham crusade, he was told that some Protestant groups would not participate in the crusade when they found out that there was a Catholic priest in leadership.
Despite theological differences, tactical partnerships between Catholics and Protestants on social causes became commonplace in the years after the Second Vatican Council — from the civil rights movement and the anti-war marches of the ’60s to today’s efforts to limit or ban abortion.
Yet Graham, now 93, is still vilified by some deeply conservative Protestants for his parallel embrace of Catholics and mainline Protestant groups.
“They opposed Graham for a number of reasons, but probably the main reason was his willingness to work with mainline Protestant liberals and Catholics,” said Grant Wacker, professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School.
“It wasn’t that Graham’s own theology was bad as that he was consorting with the enemy.”