Fr Billy Swan
Last Wednesday, 22nd November, marked the 60th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Below is the second part of an article that looks at the influnec of his Catholic faith on his leadership and vision.
God's work truly our Own
Faithful to the American constitution and consistent with former Presidents , President Kennedy never shied away from mention of God and the greater moral authority to which we are ultimately accountable. At the end of his inauguration speech, he ended his address asking God to bless his presidency and noble aspirations, noting that: “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own”. During his speech at New Ross in June 1963, he paid tribute to his ancestors who left there many years before with precious little apart from the strong faith they carried to their new home. With his death, the world was exposed to a Catholic funeral aided with the invention of TV where Cardinal Cushing implored the mercy of God on his soul – something we do for all who have died whether they be President or pauper. Death is a great leveler and whoever we are and have been, in the words of St John of the Cross, we will all be judged on love.
Lastly, President Kennedy’s legacy is not without its tensions. As a Catholic he drove a serious wedge between his private religious beliefs on one hand and his commitment as President on the other – a wedge that remains in place to this day as we see also with President Biden. The issue was and is about what it means for a Catholic to practice their faith in the public square – an issue that came to a head in 1960 as Kennedy prepared for the election. In an address to Southern Baptist clergy in Houston, Texas, he famously said: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic candidate for president who happens to be Catholic. I do not speak for my Church on public matters and the Church does not speak for me”. While it was understandable that he would say this to a Protestant audience and a predominantly Protestant nation, there were two flaws in his argument whose bitter fruits endure to this day. The first is his statement that his faith would not have a determining influence on his decision making and second, when it came to his role as a public servant, Kennedy’s identity as an American would always take precedence over his identity and beliefs as a Catholic Christian. This translates to Catholic politicians saying that while they are privately opposed to practices, for example abortion, they do not wish to impose their values or beliefs on the American public.
This view is deeply problematic from the perspective of truth that demands assent in the human conscience and heart. Here in Ireland, we saw it emerge in public debate during the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment Referendum in 2018. How can it be possible for a Catholic politician to privately believe something is inherently wrong and yet publicly support it and facilitate it becoming law? This violates the principle of non-contradiction which upholds that it is impossible to believe something and not to believe it at the same time.
In sixteenth-century England, Thomas More, now patron saint of politicians, famously said “I believe that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties…they lead their country by a short route to chaos”. Later in the nineteenth century, his fellow Englishman St John Henry Newman identified this problem in a fresh way when he wrote:
“Liberalism in religion is the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another, and this is the teaching which is gaining substance and force daily. It is inconsistent with any recognition of any religion, as true. It teaches that all are to be tolerated, for all are matters of opinion. Revealed religion is not a truth, but a sentiment and a taste; not an objective fact, not miraculous; and it is the right of each individual to make it say just what strikes his fancy” (Biglietto speech, 1879).
Again, the wisdom of C.S. Lewis sheds light here: “A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery” (The Abolition of Man, Macmillan, New York, 1965, p. 81). Therefore, while there are many elements to admire about the influence of his Catholic faith on President Kennedy, he did open up a gulf between how a Catholic politician understands his or her vocation as a public servant on one hand and what they truly believe privately on the other.
In his address to the Joint Houses of the Oireachtas on 28th June 1963, President Kennedy himself exposed the inconsistency of his own argument. As he paid tribute to how Irish people had a powerful influence on the world, he continued: “No larger nation did more to keep Christianity and Western culture alive in their darkest centuries”. But this begs the question – if this is true and Christianity had the cultural influence he applauds, then how could it have been possible if Christians had kept their faith private?
To conclude. Many older citizens still recall where they were or what they were doing when they heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot on 22nd November 1963. He was mourned globally and especially here in Ireland as one of our own. On the 60th anniversary of his death, we celebrate his positive legacy of statesmanship, hope, freedom, his global vision, Catholic imagination, contribution to education, civil and human rights. We acknowledge too the painful split he introduced to the life of a Catholic politician who believes something privately but who can undermine it publicly if that’s what the majority desire. This split remains an open wound to this day. Above all, we remember and pray for John Fitzgerald Kennedy on his anniversary, not because he was president but because, like the rest of us, he was someone who stands before Almighty God as a sinner in need of mercy. For him and for all the faithful departed in this month of November, we pray that God may grant him eternal rest and may perpetual light shine upon him. Amen.
 Taken from R. Aldous, ed., Great Irish Speeches, Quercus, London, 2007, p. 107.