What the Kennedy Speech Obscured

On September 12, 1960 John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a gathering of protestant ministers in Houston, Texas. (The text of the speech may be found here. Audio and video may also be found on this NPR website.) Shaun Casey, author of a book on the Kennedy campaign, The Making of a Catholic President, claims this was the “single most dramatic public moment in the entire campaign” (p. 175). It helped to turn the tide of the campaign on the religious issue. It was rhetorically well crafted and politically necessary. He confronted a deep long standing prejudice, an outrageous prejudice, and he won them over by some solid truth, a few half-truths, and some deep distortions.

Arhbishop Chaput, as a guest of the John Paul II Forum, gave a speech at HBU and explained some problems with the speech. (Find the speech here) The Archbishop pointed out that: “Early in his remarks, Kennedy said: ‘I believe in an America where the separation of Church and state is absolute.’ Given the distrust historically shown to Catholics in this country, his words were shrewdly chosen. The trouble is, the Constitution doesn’t say that. The Founders and Framers didn’t believe that. And the history of the United States contradicts that.”

Archbishop Chaput has the facts of history on his side. He also points out a religious flaw in his argument: “It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way. It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties.”

The transcript is worth reading to get the full sweep of his case against the Kennedy legacy. Next week the Forum will sponsor former Senator Rick Santorum who will also examine the text of the speech and share his reflections on being a Catholic in the public square. He has made a strong effort to live consistently with the truth. He is resisting the trend that would interpret the separation of church and state as the separation of the state from all morality. He was recognized by the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars for his work during their convention in Philadelphia in 2002.

Pope John Paul II would have us look to Thomas More: “Man cannot be sundered from God, nor politics from morality.” Pope John Paul II in Motu Proprio proclaiming Saint Thomas More Patron of Statesmen and Politicians, October 31, 2000, AAS 93 (2001), 76. Cardinal Ratzinger quotes this in his letter of 2002: “For Catholic moral doctrine, the rightful autonomy of the political or civil sphere from that of religion and the Church – but not from that of morality – is a value that has been attained and recognized by the Catholic Church and belongs to inheritance of contemporary civilization.” Doctrinal Note On Some Questions Regarding The Participation Of Catholics In Political Life” Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, November 24, 2002, the Solemnity of Christ the King

Whereas Kennedy strongly and rightly affirmed the one (separation of institutional relation of church and state), he obscured the connection of politics and morality through the formation of conscience. How did he do so? A brief account is this:

Kennedy set up the problem in a way that contains the seed of debilitating dualism – conscience is set against “outside religious pressures or dictates,” and “power or threat of punishment.” This formulation already puts the Church as an outsider, and in an adversarial, authoritarian position. The deep formation of personal conscience through a relationship to Jesus Christ, the illumination of divine truth, the tradition of social doctrine – here is how faith is brought to bear on politics. Kennedy seems to leave that out by setting up the external versus the personal. And yet it is precisely the internal formation of conscience that should make a difference in the public sphere. It must be integral to the mind and heart of a Catholic in public and private. Is it not stretching plausibility for Kennedy to say that he cannot see “any conflict to be even remotely possible” between his conscience and the political trends “on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject”? What kind of faithful conscience would never anticipate that there may be a problem or conflict requiring a courageous stand against the mainstream? Speaking the truth about these matters, and then seeking to find a prudential solution for the political art of the possible is a very challenging task. But one may not give up either side of the problem — the truth or the prudential solution. The Church cannot dictate the prudential solution or the way to craft a workable policy (Kennedy is right); but the speaking the truth and teaching the faithful about moral principle that has bearing on public policy — that it can and must do (Kennedy obscured this).

Now every politician, Catholic or not, must exercise a certain “triangulation.” First, there must be some core bedrock convictions about right and wrong; second, there are the circumstances and issues in which the convictions are brought into play and prudence must determine what is possible to achieve here and now; and finally, one must face fellow citizens, politicians and constituents to make an effort to persuade them of the prudential solution. The last step is fraught with challenges in a pluralistic society. One must be willing to accept defeat, maybe significant defeat, as did Thomas More, and I might add so did Rick Santorum..

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