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
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
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
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
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
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.