Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Dissenting Catholics in the public square seem to unite around at least two principles. One is their dogged pursuit of the appearance of ideological consistency. However grave the division between their public and private beliefs, persuading the public of their supposed unity of mind is a priority often pursued with rhetorical acrobatics. Consistency is thus enshrined as the chief virtue of public life, even as such contortions place those with the highest ideals in graver danger of hypocrisy. The second rallying point among dissenting public Catholics is”oddly enough” also common among cohabiting couples: the urgent desire to reap the benefits of affiliation without the commitment of oneself to a cause, whether it be the Catholic Church or the institution of marriage.

We see these principles in action in Catholics from Mario Cuomo to Patrick Kennedy, but, as Archbishop Charles Chaput observed in a speech on Monday, the trend began with John F. Kennedy’s famous “Houston Speech,” delivered to an assembly of Protestant pastors while campaigning for the presidency fifty years ago. Kennedy’s assertions about religion and public life were, as Chaput put it, “sincere, compelling, articulate”and wrong.” Moreover, the archbishop said, Kennedy’s remarks “profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation.”

Speaking to a group of Texas Protestants just as Kennedy did in 1960, Archbishop Chaput identified Kennedy’s errors as political, historical, and religious. Broadly, JFK’s political and historical error was to misidentify the American understanding of public life as one “where the separation of Church and state is absolute” rather than a mere prohibition on state-run religious denominations. While forgoing discussion of how church and state can be mutually nourishing when not tied together, Kennedy’s speech equated religious membership with the corporate imposition of ecclesial law on civil life. As the then-senator put it, “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.”

But, as Archbishop Chaput noted, relegating religious acts to the private domain contradicts the principal tenets of Christian religious ideals, and Christians “have a mandate to share [the] Gospel of truth, mercy, justice and love . . . . Real Christian faith is always personal, but it’s never private.” Privatizing religion is, as it were, the imposition of a particular religious doctrine on religion”namely, the doctrine that religion is essentially a private pursuit.

Kennedy’s religious mistake, Chaput went on, was to tone down his Catholicism by advancing secularism. Or, as Jesuit scholar Mark Massa has said, Kennedy “secularize[d] the American presidency in order to win it.” Kennedy’s praise of religious freedom elsewhere in his speech was, of course, nothing but a canard, as the free exercise of religion was not at issue, either for him or for the Protestant ministers to whom he spoke. Kennedy was, it seems, the only voice advocating for a curb on the exercise of religion, by deeming it a private matter. And it seems he was just as unwilling to impose his religious values on himself as he was to impose them on the public.

In the address, Archbishop Chaput drew attention to Kennedy’s surprising claim that, would his presidential duties “ever require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I would resign the office.” Kennedy also promised not to “disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.” But, as the archbishop countered, Kennedy’s Houston speech did just that.

What modern trends in public Catholicism, then, did JFK set into motion? There seem to be at least three. Archbishop Chaput was careful to note in his speech that Christianity is not primarily about politics, nor do theories of political justice and policy play a prominent role in the spiritual life of Christians. By identifying the visible Church primarily as a political phenomenon, Kennedy and his successors refer to a facet of Catholicism that isn’t one. In this vein, Catholic public figures have at times made their reception of communion a highly political (and sometimes defiant) act, despite its wholly apolitical theological meaning to Catholics.

A second trend is an ideological pragmatism that hijacks conscience. It’s fine, politicians tell us, to employ religious reasons on matters of universal agreement, such as the need to end homelessness or violence. But there remains a set of issues off-limits to the Catholic conscience. As Kennedy put it, “whatever issue may come before me as president”on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject”I will make my decision . . . in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.” The only way to interpret this claim honestly, it seems, is to conclude that we ought to form both a Catholic conscience and a secular one”one for each set of issues. On that distinction, Kennedy cleverly equivocates. Using this strategy, Catholic politicians have retained the allegiance of Catholic voters while all but adopting atheistic consciences in the public square.

Incidentally, support for the modern analogues (abortion and same-sex marriage, among other concerns) of Kennedy’s hot-button issues has become the calling card of dissenting Catholics. Just as Kennedy distanced himself from scrutiny by equivocating on the meaning of conscience, modern-day Catholic politicians may enact their own JFK moments merely by repudiating the Church’s teachings on two or three symbolic culture-war issues.

Perhaps the most cognitively dissonant trend that Kennedy set in motion was his self-styled dualism, a vice of mind now ubiquitous among Catholic politicians. The personal“private gap can hardly be parsed logically without resort to a radical division in the mind. Just as Kennedy claimed to be a neutral instrument of justice while privately a Catholic believer, so do modern Catholic politicians claim to possess multiple consciences to deal with ethically charged issues. Rhetorical acrobatics notwithstanding, this public“private divide simply fails to meet the standards of common sense. When would a Catholic politician claim private opposition to larceny while supporting it as a valid choice for a segment of his constituents?

It is sad to see that, with his desire in 1960 to secularize the American presidency, John F. Kennedy set in motion currents of thought that today have made significant headway toward the secularization of Catholic life in America.

Kevin Staley-Joyce is a junior fellow at First Things

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles