Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, January 9, 2012

McConnell: "Is There Still a 'Catholic Question' in America?"

In the Fall of 2010, Prof. Michael McConnell gave a great lecture, to a packed house, at Notre Dame, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of then-candidate-Kennedy's "Catholic speech" to the Houston ministers.  The lecture is now available here, thanks to the Notre Dame Law Review.  No surprise -- it's excellent.  The conclusion:

We should not underestimate the importance of what he was saying.  By running forthrightly, and not apologizing for his Catholicism, and winning, and showing himself to the world as a President of whom we all can be proud, John F. Kennedy won a great victory for inclusion and against bigotry. But we must not overlook the way in which he reduced religious belief to accident of birth, or more specifically, to baptism. The important question facing the nation was not whether forty million Americans baptized into a certain religion are excluded from the presidency, but whether many more millions of Americans are excluded from full political participation because they ground their understanding of justice and morality in the teachings of their faith. The intellectual descendants of Blanshard and Dewey are still raising this question. Those who spend time in philosophy departments and law schools will recognize its contemporary incarnations. And I am sorry to say that John F. Kennedy’s great speech in Houston provides these voices more ammunition than challenge.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink

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The article says: "But we must not overlook the way in which he reduced religious belief to accident of birth, or more specifically, to baptism."

I don't think saying you "happen to be X" reduces X to an accident of birth. People often use this phrasing to avoid being pigeon-holed. "I am not a woman doctor; I am a doctor who happens to be a woman." When it comes to being a doctor, it's not that being a woman is an accident of birth. It's just not relevant to being a doctor. I believe some women who are writers object to being called a "female author," as if it were necessary to divide writers into males and females.

I have to say, this essay made me more sympathetic to anti-Catholicism in the past! McConnell is very forthright, saying things like, "Catholic doctrine has changed." Even at my advanced age, I tend to think of the Syllabus of Errors and opposition to religious freedom as ancient history, but they were really not definitively and officially gone until I was a college student. (Of course, there are numerous Catholics one runs into on blogs that insist that the Syllabus of Errors is just as demanding of our assent as it was the day it was written.)

I also have to say that considering the anti-Catholicism of the past, it is amusing that some Catholics feel they are persecuted today. Yes, there are some issues where there is church-state conflict, but it is difficult for a group with six justices on the Supreme Court to claim religious persecution, in my opinion.

One thing that I never understand is how someone like Scalia can claim his religion has absolutely nothing to do with how he performs his job on the Supreme Court—and the most conservative Catholics make not a peep—and yet Catholic presidents, legislators, and voters are not permitted to separate their civil roles from their religious ones.

It was a very interesting article. But I can't help wondering what McConnell and Archbishop Chaput and Rick Garnett feel Kennedy *should* have said. And if they could have collaborated on Kennedy's speech, would Nixon have been elected in 1960?

Posted by: David Nickol | Jan 9, 2012 6:37:32 PM

McConnell mentions that the Catholic view on integration was more progressive than the Protestant view in many parts of the country.  One might have expected this to have been one of the positive features of Catholicism that Kennedy could have pointed to with pride.  But it would have required an argument that hierarchical authority is at least occasionally superior to grass roots democracy, a difficult and unpopular argument in any age.

Here's Reinhold Niebuhr making that argument in an interesting 1958 interview:

"the churches that are most obviously democratic are most obviously given to race prejudice, by which I mean the churches that have absolute congregational control. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a kind of Protestantism that said, 'If you could only get rid of the Bishop, then you'd be a true Christian.' Well, you might get rid of the Bishop and get the local Ku Klux Klan leader instead. That has been the fate of certain types of Protestantism. They get under the control of a White Citizens Council, while the Catholic Church with its authoritarian system, in which the Bishop expresses the conscience of the whole Christian community, says there are some things that you can't do. There must be equality of all men before God in a democratic society. I think that the achievements of Catholicism on race are very very impressive."


In the rest of the interview Niebuhr seems to be more "separationist" than McConnell. 

Posted by: Patrick Molloy | Jan 10, 2012 12:04:25 AM

Let me add that for those of us who *thought* Kennedy settled the matter, the question would be, "Is there ONCE AGAIN a 'Catholic question' in America?" If there was any criticism of Kennedy from Catholic quarters when he made the speech, I don't recall it. (I was, however, only in the 8th grade.) My sense is that only recently has the speech been an issue among some conservative Catholics. I could very well be wrong, though.

I do recall how totally thrilled many Catholics were with the Kennedys. I don't ever remember a television being brought into the classrooms of Assumption School (Mt. Health [Cincinnati], Ohio) except to show the Kennedys. I remember the 8th-grade girls squealing with pleasure when Bobby Kennedy was shown, and that made the nuns *beam*. Never before or after did the nuns show any sign of approval whatsoever for girls being attracted to the opposite sex.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jan 10, 2012 10:30:28 AM