The Curious Case of JFK and Fr. Murray, SJ

Attempted to correct the Kennedy error

The Kennedy team sought the advice of Jesuit John C. Murray (Casey mentions it in his book, The Making of a Catholic President, and see also John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom (Norton, 2003), p. 213. Father Murray was not impressed by Kennedy and he considered him a “lightweight.” McGreevy reports that Murray as well as other Catholic intellectuals “remained uneasy about Kennedy’s rigid distinction between religion and public life.” (Emphasis added)  McGreevy says that Murray “probably looked askance at Kennedy’s disavowal of any religious influence on his political views” (as stated by Kennedy in Look magazine.)

Indeed, one may simply turn to Murray’s book We Hold these Truths: Reflections on the American Proposition to see his deep disagreement with Kennedy. Murray argues for some kind of aid to Catholic schools, whereas Kennedy was dead set against any form of it, as we see in his Houston speech. Murray excoriates those who take a view of the Church state separation as absolute because it is false to the spirit of the constitution and because it is “reactionary” and fails to take into account “today’s educational, social, and religious realities.” Kennedy’s position then is “both out of date and at variance with justice.” From what I gather after reading Murray, Kennedy would not just be a “lightweight” but a misguided lightweight.

Murray graciously agreed to read Kennedy’s Houston speech and to make a recommendation; the recommendation clarifies the issue and not surprisingly anticipates statements in Gaudium et spes. Kennedy did not use it in his speech, but used it in the question and answer period. It is too bad that he did not use it in his speech, because it would have cleared up the central obscurity or muddle; but perhaps Kennedy did not wish to clarify the muddle. According to Casey: “Murray’s advice was to distinguish between faith and morals, where the church’s hierarchy was free to instruct all of its members, and public policy, where the Vatican would never coerce Catholic public officials.”

There in great simplicity is the distinction we need — on faith and morals the Church is free to instruct its members, and conversely, its members must embrace this teaching and form their conscience in accord with it. A Catholic will have a Catholic conscience — that is what it is to be a Catholic. The Church authority does not dictate policy — that must be worked out by lay people with a prudential application of principles.

At Vatican II the following statement was made: “Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church,  let the layman take on his own distinctive role.” §43 Here is the authentically “full and explicit” statement of the Catholic in modern society, which White claimed Kennedy had provided. Kennedy failed to incorporate this point into his speech and remained with the obscurity concerning conscience and its formation.

Policy itself is freely formed by the citizens or duly appointed authority in the political order; but policy is precisely the merging of the means of power with principle. Policy inevitably reflects a moral view. Thus, Murray in a more explicit statement said: “Policy is the hand of the practical reason set firmly upon the course of events. Policy is what a nation does in this or that given situation.  . .  .  Policy is the meeting place of the world of power and the world of morality, in which there takes place the concrete reconciliation of the duty of success that rests upon the statesman and the duty of justice that rests upon the civilized nation that he serves.”  John Courtney Murray, S.J., Morality and Modern War (New York: Council on Religion and International Affairs, 1959), p. 19.   

The important point here is that the statesman is free of Church dictation on explicit policy. Kennedy rightly wanted to make this point.  But the principles by which policy is formed have a moral source. Separation of Church and state does not mean the separation of politics and morality, as Pope John Paul II would later say. Kennedy was confused on this point. It is precisely in the realm of formation of conscience that the Church will have an impact upon the public, as it is free to teach on faith and morals. The citizen/statesmen  is a concrete person, a unity; to act with integrity is to act according to conscience.

In the same section of Gaudium et spes we read “This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. ” The Kennedy speech appears to reflect this serious error of the secular age. Vatican II decisively refuted the Kennedy solution. Many Catholic politicans are still mired in this serious error and need to awaken to Vatican II..

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