Last Friday, as the nation contemplated the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, I sought a spot in the nation’s capital that I could reach easily before returning home from vacation. Arlington National Cemetery, with its eternal flame by his gravesite, was a bit too far and, in any case, likely to be thronged. The Kennedy Center for the Performing was also a bit too distant for my purposes. On the other hand, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle (my photograph of which accompanies this post), about 10 blocks from the bed and breakfast where I was staying, fit my requirements perfectly.
Most Americans who watched the coverage of the four awful days following JFK’s assassination remember what happened outside rather than inside: the final salute to the coffin of his father by John F. Kennedy Jr.
But that single touching moment on November 25, 1963 was just part of a day that furnished Americans—and particularly Catholics—with an opportunity to take stock of how the nation and one of its faith communities had evolved in the three years since Jack Kennedy had broken one of America’s unofficial but enduring barriers to the nation’s high office. Now the first Roman Catholic elected President was being buried, as a stunned, heartbroken America watched his Church lay him to rest in ancient pageantry that once might have struck most non-Catholics as unnerving but now seemed merely exotic.
That spectacle at St. Matthew’s was part of a funeral conducted in Latin, a language that fell into increasing disuse within a few years when the Vatican permitted the Mass to be celebrated in the vernacular. Last week, I could not be around for the Mass of Remembrance held late that afternoon, but the largely empty confines of the vast church that morning gave me the opportunity to take in the atmosphere of one of the most powerfully symbolic settings on that somber Monday a half century ago. I slowly read and absorbed the marble plaque inlaid in front of the gates of the sanctuary that described the final journey of this most restless of politicians: “Here rested the remains of President Kennedy at the Requiem Mass, Nov. 25, 1963, before their removal to Arlington, where they lie in expectation of a heavenly resurrection.”
Those watching the solemn ceremonies became aware that Matthew—a tax collector at the time he took up Jesus’ invitation to follow him—was the patron saint of civil servants. But the Gospel writer shared not only public service and an inclination for writing with the President, but, many believed, a common fate: martyrdom. Even a eulogy given the day after the assassination by Chief Justice Earl Warren, a non-Catholic, partook of this spirit, referring to the “martyrdom” of this “apostle of peace.”
It is difficult to imagine such terms used today. The debunking machinery has slipped into full gear over the last half century, seriously battering the reputations of both Kennedy and his Church. Both the man and the institution have been damaged by allegations of sexual transgression (though extramarital relationships with adult women are not to be compared with the rape of children).
None of this is to say, however, that examining Kennedy and Catholicism holds no value. Without discounting the importance of Kennedy’s death, it is more crucial that we understand the significance of his life. And discovering that necessarily originates with what he believed, a critical source of his actions: Catholicism.
The Kennedy funeral took place at a unique moment in American Catholicism. Urban political machines and the labor movement, both largely powered by blue-collar ethnic Catholics, not only provided one of the most dependable blocs in the Democratic Party, but had made sharp inroads into the American political establishment: as U.S. Attorney General (Bobby Kennedy), Speaker of the House (John McCormack), Senate Majority Leader (Mike Mansfield), and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (William Brennan).
Despite breaking the back of one of the most deeply ingrained prejudices in American politics, JFK was probably the least given among his siblings to religious piety. Bobby, for one, would step over the communion rail as an adult if an altar boy was missing and lend a priest a hand, and Rose Kennedy even thought, in a wrongheaded guess, that Ted might have a vocation for the priesthood. The oldest brother, Joe Jr., the one originally marked out for politics by their father, possessed an instinctive piety that, combined with his feisty instincts, might have proved disastrous on the campaign trail with non-Catholics.
In contrast, Jack was irreverent about nearly everything. That instinct helped immensely in the White House, when his skepticism about General Curtis LeMay’s belief in nuclear survivability kept the world away from disaster in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It would have been a surprise if it did not carry over to organized religion.
As an adolescent, his pointed questioning about the number of followers of Christ and Mohammed (“Why do you think we should believe in Christ any more than Mohammed?”) led a cleric to advise his parents to secure him religious instruction as soon as possible lest he become an atheist.
Had Kennedy’s adolescence occurred in the Seventies rather than the Thirties, he might well have become a lapsed Catholic, perhaps without ties to any organized religion. But he was a child of not only the extremely devout Rose but of a larger culture in which lack of religion was viewed even more suspiciously than having an inappropriate one, and so he remained a practicing Catholic. Privately, among closest aides such as Dave Powers and Kenneth O'Donnell, he would pray daily, and especially fervently in times of crisis, such as the death of his newborn son Patrick in August 1963. But he remained distinctly uncomfortable about overt public professions of Catholicism.
JFK’s attitude toward his ancestral faith, then, was private and emotive rather than public and intellectual. Indeed, according to speechwriter/biographer/hagiographer Theodore Sorensen, his boss “cared not a whit for theology.” He found more congenial the worldview of Richard Cardinal Cushing, who, in his long tenure at the helm of the Archdiocese of Boston, stuck to his vow of avoiding "all arguments with our non-Catholic neighbors and from all purely defensive talk about Catholicism."
What especially interested JFK were the political stances of the Church hierarchy. Another aide/biographer, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., wrote that he “discussed the princes of the Catholic Church with the same irreverent candor with which he discussed the bosses of the Democratic Party.”
His rapier wit hinted strongly at that “irreverent candor” such as when, as an adult running for office, he needled an overweight monsignor by saying it was an inspiration “to be here with…one of those lean ascetic clerics who show the effects of constant fast and prayer, and bring the message to us in the flesh.” The hierarchy of his day sometimes left him precious little room to maneuver. He was forced to withdraw, for instance, for an invitation to speak at a dinner of the ecumenical Chapel of Four Chaplains in Philadelphia when the city’s archdiocese opposed the project because canon law forbade the location of the memorial chapel in a Protestant church. (It undoubtedly rankled the naval vet Kennedy that the archdiocese was not participating in a project honoring participants in one of the most famous incidents of WWII: the torpedoing of the American troop ship Dorchester with a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi, and two Protestant ministers aboard.)
The Kennedy family’s close association with Cardinal Cushing has obscured, in the public eye, that during the 1960 election, this trailblazing Catholic politician did not enjoy the support of most archbishops in his church. It was not simply a matter of that hierarchy maintaining strict neutrality; more often, they followed the example of the conservative Francis Cardinal Spellman of New York, who found Richard Nixon more inclined toward the church’s stances on such matters as aid to parochial schools, a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, fierce anti-Communism, and against birth control, according to Thomas Maier’s The Kennedys: America’s Emerald Kings. Eventually, the Kennedy campaign translated the attitude of Church personnel into the axiom that, while archbishops opposed them, nuns supported them.
Over a half century later, in the 2012 GOP primaries, Rick Santorum stirred considerable controversy with his statement that JFK’s famous Kennedy's September 12, 1960 speech to a group of southern Baptist ministers in Houston made him “want to throw up.” The line that the former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania found offensive: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."
The problem was not simply that Santorum had seriously misinterpreted JFK’s views on the proper place of spirituality-informed expression in the public square, but that he had little appreciation for how much electoral space to maneuver the Democrat required to ease the trepidation of many non-Catholics. (For a fine recap of where and how often Santorum went wrong, see this assessment by John Fea on the Web site Patheos.)
It was not only conservative Protestants who regarded any Catholic as something akin to the anti-Christ, but also those on the liberal/left end of the political spectrum who saw the religion as a medieval institution inimical to American notions of freedom of conscience. Many in the latter camp regarded Kennedy with suspicion, preferring the twice-rejected Adlai Stevenson.
At its most benign, this concern took the form of renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr sharply questioning Kennedy’s possible stance toward pressure from the Church hierarchy before coming away satisfied. But at a more extreme level, it involved poet Archibald MacLeish disseminating notions of Irish Catholic backing of censorship and submission to clerical authority.
These fears found root in an environment in the decade leading up to the election in which birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger announced that she was considering leaving the U.S. if the Catholic Kennedy were elected President; in which blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. could write the anti-Catholic satire The Ecstasy of Owen Muir; and in which Paul Blanshard, an associate editor of The Nation, could produce the bestselling Book of the Month selection, American Freedom and Catholic Power, whose attitude is probably best encapsulated in this sentence: “The Catholic problem is still with us."
Under the circumstances, it was a practical necessity not only that Kennedy be seen as wearing his religion lightly, but also that, once elected, he stuck to his stances against parochial-school aid and naming an ambassador to Rome. Columnist Murray Kempton could not resist noting the irony: “We have again been cheated of the prospect of a Catholic president.”
The Catholic electoral monolith dreaded by so many across the political spectrum in 1960 has crumbled, if it can be said ever to have existed at all. In 2004, another U.S. Senator from Massachusetts with the initials JFK lost the Presidential vote of his Catholic co-religionists, 52 to 47 percent, to the evangelical Protestant George W. Bush. Kennedy had helped move the needle so that John Forbes Kerry could be judged more on his personality or his stances on issues rather than strictly his faith. Just as important, Kennedy had made it possible, nearly a half century after his election, for another person even further outside the WASP political mainstream, Barack Obama, to be elected President.
For different reasons, I found two of the most poignant reactions to the death of Kennedys coming from those of Irish descent. One was from Cardinal Cushing, who, after reciting the Latin phrases of the Requiem Mass, departed from the prepared text to cry out, on behalf of the young politico he had come to cherish: “May the angels, dear Jack, lead you into paradise. May the martyrs receive you at your coming.”
The other was the Irish short-story master Frank O’Connor, who wrote in Dublin’s Sunday Independent, two days after the assassination: “John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a miracle. In three different ways he broke through age-old American prejudices against Catholics, against Irishmen and against intellectuals, and you have to have lived in America to realize how strong those prejudices are.”
With time, as with much else about John F. Kennedy, the latter assessment would have to be qualified. (While a ferociously bookish young man who often used his reading to guide his political thought, JFK could only direct research efforts put out under his own name, not write those books himself, as shown by extensive studies in the latest 40 years demonstrating that the authorship of While England Slept and Profiles in Courage rightly belonged to others, not himself.) But, in the main, it remains valid. Religious bigotry, including the anti-Catholic variety, has hardly ended in the United States, but it was decisively checked by his election and Presidency.