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, February 27, 2012

JFK in Houston

I appreciate Steve posting on the JFK speech to the Houston Ministerial Association, September 1960. Many recall the significance of his speech with either their adulation or critique. However, as we consider the import of what then Senator Kennedy said in his formal remarks, we should also take stock of the answers he gave during the formal question-and-answer session that immediately followed the speech. We also need to consider the fact that this was a political speech geared not to losing votes but, more likely, to gaining them.

One of the first questions he had to contend with was whether, as a public official, he would attend a service in a church other than one that was Catholic. In this regard, Kennedy replied in the affirmative. But then he was pressed on why he cancelled an acceptance to attend the dedication of the Chapel of the Chaplains in Philadelphia in 1947. The Chapel was located in the lower level of a Protestant church and was designed as an interfaith place of prayer that commemorated the four brave chaplains (Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish) aboard the USS Dorchester who gave their life vests to other service members as the ship was sinking. Kennedy’s answer was that if he were invited as a public official or simple citizen who had served in the Navy, he would have still gone to the dedication. But it appeared that he had been invited as the “Catholic spokesman,” and in this context he “did not feel [he] had very good credentials to attend” in this capacity. In the later analysis, it appears that Kennedy understood he was not in a position to speak for or bind the Catholic Church in whatever he said or did at the dedication. Moreover, as a fledgling office-holder, he indicated that his expertise was not theology and related matters.

That was a simple question—even though he was contentiously pushed with a hard follow-up question—with a relatively straightforward answer given again by Kennedy. But some of the ministers pressed on with more difficult questions. Several, seemingly encouraged by Kennedy’s position that he would not take instruction on public matters from his religious authorities, asked the senator if he would “appeal” to Catholic authorities in the US and in Rome with the plea “relative to the separation of church and state in the United States and religious freedom as separated in the Constitution of the United States, in order that the Vatican may officially authorize such a belief for all Roman Catholics in the United States.” Kennedy’s response demonstrated that he understood that the “separation of Church and State” was to benefit the Church as much as it was to benefit civil society, including the government. In his reply to this “appeal,” the senator said this:

“May I just say that as I do not accept the right of any, as I said, ecclesiastical official, to tell me what I shall do in the sphere of my public responsibility as an elected official, I do not propose also to ask Cardinal Cushing to ask the Vatican to take some action. I do not propose to interfere with their free right to do exactly what they want.”

When he was asked another question about the ability of the Catholic Church “to direct its members in various areas of life, including the political realm,” Kennedy provided a careful, prudential, and nuanced answer that indicated he understood a distinction between an “improper” influence and one that may well be proper. In this context, he may well have anticipated what Pope Paul VI was to say to the temporal leaders of the world five years later at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council when he honored and respected their authority and sovereignty:

“What does the Church ask of you today? She tells you in one of the major documents of this council. She asks of you only liberty, the liberty to believe and to preach her faith, the freedom to love her God and serve Him, the freedom to live and to bring to men her message of life. Do not fear her.”

By Kennedy reminding the audience of the facts that the United States had previously had two Catholic Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, that Canada had previously had two Catholic Prime Ministers, that France had the Catholic De Gaulle, and that Germany had the Catholic Adenauer, it might be said that the words of Paul VI had already been in place during the Presidential campaign. If there was no reason to fear the Church in these instances cited by Kennedy (two of which included the United States), there should be no reason to fear John Kennedy now in 1960 solely on the basis that he was a Catholic.

One other minister kept peppering the senator with long, partial quotations from different Catholic sources (some of which were mistakenly attributed to Leo XIII when they were probably from Pius IX, i.e., The Syllabus of Errors) and asked Kennedy if he agreed with them. Before Kennedy had much opportunity to say anything, another member of the audience shouted out, “I object to this. Time is running out!” However, the minister with the peppering questions managed to get in one question to which Kennedy responded. The question involved a statement attributed to John XXIII that “Catholics must unite their strength toward the common aid and the Catholic hierarchy has the right and duty of guiding them.” The concern of this questioner focused on the Catholic hierarchy’s “right and duty of guiding” the faithful. Kennedy gave the response of a good politician by reminding the minister that any Baptist or other minister “has the right and duty to guide his flock” in matters of morals and the faith, so why should the pope or any Catholic bishop or priest be different?

As I am currently undertaking a research project to discern the views of John Kennedy throughout his public life (1947-1963) on “the separation of Church and State,” I hope to be able to raise from time to time some of the results of this work with my friends here at the Mirror of Justice. I think it safe to say at this stage that what I discover may help us consider this issue and related matters as they apply to the current Presidential campaign and general election that we shall all face in a few months.


RJA sj



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