The Sources of Conscience: The Central Obscurity of the Kennedy Speech

The Kennedy speech needs to be read and criticized because the event and the speech are put forward as the turning point for Catholics in the United States. Shaun Casey quotes approvingly the remark by presidential historian Theodore White (The Making of the President 1960) — Kennedy “had for the first time more fully and explicitly than any other thinker  of his faith defined the personal doctrine of a Catholic in a democratic society.” (cited in The Making of a Catholic President, p. 176). White obviously knew next to nothing about modern  Catholic thinkers, but such praise and endorsement sets up the Kennedy solution as the intelligent and viable one for Catholics. It would be one thing to say it was a masterful speech, because rhetorically artful and politically pragmatic. But it is another thing to say this speech represents an explicit definition of “the personal doctrine of a Catholic in a democratic society.”

Archbishop Chaput criticizes Kennedy’s line that the separation of Church and state is “absolute.” That line is false to our history and it promotes a spirit of indifference to religion and religious truth.

I wish to examine another passage in Kennedy’s speech. He said: “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 these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

There is an obscurity at its heart — what does he mean by “in accordance with these views”? To what views is he referring? The view about the absolute separation of church state? The view that poverty and war are not religious issues? Or does he mean his “own views” and not the “views of the bishop”?  But is his view shared with others? He is a New Englander, a Navy man, a wealthy man, a Democrat, a Harvard grad, a Catholic, an American citizen — all of these descriptions name aspects of his “view” of the world. He can never really disown any of them for they have shaped and formed him. Obviously a mature person, a thoughtful person, cam make proper adjustments, distinctions and refinements to settle on his “view” of a given matter. But he does seem to distance himself, as a public man, from the views he shares with his Catholic faithful and especially with the Catholic hierarchy. Perhaps this is but a pragmatic necessity to reassure his audience. He makes a powerful appeal to the sacrifice of his family in the wars of America: “fought for in the South Pacific, and the kind my brother died for in Europe. No one suggested then that we may have a ‘divided loyalty,’ that we did ‘not believe in liberty,’ or that we belonged to a disloyal group that threatened the ‘freedoms for which our forefathers died.'” Indeed, so why divide his loyalty now, or suggest that one loyalty (religion) must be made private?

He then specifies that he will decide in light of his “conscience.” Here we hit the real confusion. Rather than give a full and explicit account as Theodore White claims, Kennedy now provides a very limited and vaguely implicit account of the role of a Catholic (or any person of faith) in a democratic society. What is conscience and how is it formed? That is the key question.

He says not a word in answer. For would it not be — the Catholic religion? What is Catholic belief if not the formation of conscience, the practice of examination of conscience, and the participation in sacramental confession? Conscience is more than a calculation about “the national interest.” It is a deep source of moral reflection in light of fundamental precepts and principles. Conscience is not a private judgment, self-spawned  and ideosyncratic. In 1983 Pope John Paul II said “Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man.” (General Audience, 17 August 1983) Conscience is inextricably tied to religious questions.

But Kennedy throws us off the scent of the trail when he contrast conscience with religion as an  “outside pressures or dictates, or a “coercive power” with a “threat of punishment” pushing him decide otherwise. Here he allows the protestant audience to frame the question for him. The Catholic religion is about external conformity, hierarchical dictates, and coercion, rather than about internal renewal, illumination, and free response in conscience. No doubt the circumstances required capitulation on the deep issue and a counter thrust against the religious bigotry. His advisors wanted him to emphasize the injustice of the bigotry — a very valid point.

But let’s not exalt this speech as a wise explication of the issues. I would say it belongs as a relic in the museum of liberal Catholicism. But unfortunately is still lives. And rather than the quiet disowning of the faith, we have the outright mockery of the faith by many Catholics in Kennedy’s party who will now lecture the country on the bishop’s errors and inform us that Augustine and Aquinas were really in favor of abortion.

Kennedy did have one piece of advice that would have done much to clarify the situation. It turns out to have been John Courtney Murray. Murray is reported to have said Kennedy was a lightweight, but he still sent him a crucial text. Kennedy did not use it in his speech, but used in the question and answer session. We shall discuss the Murray solution in our next blog..

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