Pro-Astrology, Pro-Family, Pro-Pope John Paul II: The Complicated Legacy of Nancy Reagan

COMMENTARY: Although Nancy Reagan, who died March 6, favored astrology and embryonic stem-cell research, she was nevertheless an extraordinarily devoted wife and a huge admirer of St. John Paul II.

President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan meet with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in Rome on June 7, 1982.
President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan meet with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in Rome on June 7, 1982. (photo: White House/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

As the nation remembers Nancy Reagan, many faithful Catholics consider how they should remember her. It isn’t an easy question.

For starters, it’s kind of a non-starter to even try to size up Nancy Reagan, a lifetime non-Catholic, from a Catholic perspective. There would seem no overriding theme or story there, even as certain general negatives and positives come to mind. Among the former, for instance, serious Catholics cannot help but be bothered by her consulting an astrologer after the shooting of her husband in March 1981. That was all Nancy. She indeed did it.

For the record, Mrs. Reagan turned to astrology precisely because of the shooting. “Astrology was simply one of the ways I coped with the fear I felt after my husband almost died,” she candidly explained in her memoirs. She was told by Hollywood friend Merv Griffin that a Hollywood astrologer named Joan Quigley had warned that March 30, 1981, had been a “dangerous day” for the president. “Oh my God,” Nancy shouted at Merv over the phone, “I could have stopped it!”

Nancy hung up the phone, picked it up again, and immediately called Joan. The Hollywood seer soberly told a shaken Nancy that she could have warned her that March 30 “was a very bad day for the president.” The stars apparently had not been aligned in a fortuitous way.

“I’m so scared,” a rattled Nancy told Quigley. “I’m scared every time he leaves the house, and I don’t think I breathe until he gets home. I cringe every time we step out of a car or leave a building. I’m afraid that one of these days somebody is going to shoot him again.”

Thus, Nancy was attracted to astrology as a way of coping with the trauma and (she hoped, grasping for anything) to perhaps protect her Ronnie.

If we look carefully and charitably within that sadly misguided rationale — consulting astrologers is widely condemned throughout the Christian world — we actually see a hidden virtue regarding Mrs. Reagan: Her overriding interest was always the safekeeping of her husband. And to that end, let us commend her for one of her greatest, most enduring attributes: Nancy Reagan was an extraordinarily devoted spouse. Ronald Reagan could not have found a more committed wife, especially after actress Jane Wyman broke his heart by demanding a divorce that he absolutely did not want.

“Ronnie is my hero,” Nancy once glowed. “My life began when I got married. My life began with Ronnie.” She had dated other men prior to him. She was an actress who had other suitors and prospects, but Ronald Reagan was the one for her. She found her soulmate.

Nancy would show that commitment until the very end of her soulmate’s time on this earth. In fact, negative public opinion toward Nancy in the 1980s shifted permanently as Americans watched her take care of her beloved husband once stricken with Alzheimer’s. No one was unmoved by the image of a teary-eyed Nancy stroking her husband’s funeral casket at the Capitol Rotunda in June 2004, speaking softly to her deceased Ronnie inside.

So, while Nancy’s consulting of astrologers was not Christian and is something Catholics must condemn, her taking care of her spouse was one of the more commendably Christian displays we have publicly seen from a first lady.

Another Nancy negative that merits mention from a Catholic perspective was her public crusade for embryonic stem-cell research as her husband ebbed away from Alzheimer’s, a disease that she allowed herself to be convinced could be halted if only human embryos could be legally dissected with government funding. She had never been a champion of the pro-life movement. It was fairly easy for advocates of embryonic research to co-opt her by overstating the potential for a cure for everything from Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s. She was joined by “pro-choice” liberals who were trying to remake the 40th president in their own image, fashioning him into a posthumous poster boy for embryonic research. Jonathan Alter explained this un-documentable Reagan conversion in Newsweek: “If [Nancy Reagan] passionately favored stem-cell research, it might have taken [Ronald Reagan] a while, but he probably would have come around.”

There was no evidence for this, as was known by Bill Clark, the close former aide to Mr. and Mrs. Reagan and a devout Catholic. I was Clark’s biographer. He was quite upset at how a dead Reagan was being exploited by those pushing embryonic stem-cell research. Clark responded with a crucial op-ed piece for The New York Times titled, “For Reagan, All Life Was Sacred.” There, Clark laid out how Reagan had defended life from conception to delivery, and even championed the Human Life Amendment, which defined life as beginning at conception. Reagan as president had vetoed the type of research that others were claiming he would now support.

“Ronald Reagan had not passed from this life for 48 hours before proponents of human embryonic stem-cell research began to suggest that such ethically questionable scientific work should be promoted under his name,” objected Clark.

This important piece was reprinted all over the world. And Mrs. Reagan, who had once schemed to fire Clark when she disapproved of his views in the 1980s (which then, too, had merely matched Ronald Reagan’s views), was not happy about what Clark had written. She ordered Mike Deaver, her longtime lieutenant, to telephone Clark, registering her disapproval of his truth-telling. “She wasn’t very happy with me,” Clark told me.

It was moments like these that earned Nancy Reagan enemies and should rightly upset faithful Catholics.

But again, the Nancy Reagan story was always a mixed bag. There was much to like as well as dislike. I’ll end with an example that hasn’t been reported and that will warm Catholic hearts. It was shared with me by Joanne Drake, Nancy’s longtime right-hand woman and a wonderful person and a Catholic.

Nancy Reagan really liked Pope John Paul II, whom she met with a number of times (at least four to my knowledge, one of them without her husband). He was literally her favorite leader. While Ronald Reagan was the great man in her life, Nancy also saw John Paul II as a great man. When once reviewing old photos of various leaders with Drake, Mrs. Reagan gasped and smiled when she came across a picture of her and her husband with John Paul II. “Oh, my favorite!” she said warmly. When pressed as to what she liked so much about the Pope, Nancy pointed to traits that she felt he shared with her husband: both had been actors, outdoorsmen, were athletic, “charming, kind, gentle and sincere.” She always retained a strong affection toward the Holy Father.

John Paul II mailed a personal note to Mrs. Reagan when he learned of her husband’s death in 2004, expressing his sadness and saying he was praying for her. She was touched. He had told her prior to her husband’s death that he appreciated how she had been “so attentive to him in his illness.”

Indeed, it was that attentiveness to Ronald Reagan in illness and throughout his life and presidency that should remain our enduring image of Nancy Reagan. It speaks beautifully to her devotion to the man she loved. Catholics like to say that a chief role of a spouse is to help the other spouse get to heaven.

Nancy Reagan, a non-Catholic, certainly sought to help her husband with that and more.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press) and God and Ronald Reagan (HarperPerennial).