The Catholic President

JFK Library

Living as I do in the shadow of the JFK Library, I have noticed over the last few months a series of lamppost banners announcing various anniversaries, starting with the 50th anniversary of the election of JFK – our first Catholic President – and including today’s 50th anniversary of his inauguration (and more memorably, of his inaugural address).

For many, the idea of anti-Catholic bias is so antiquated that they aren’t impressed by this milestone. Either they don’t realize or they don’t care that the nativist riots, Know-nothing pary, burning of the Ursuline convent and “Irish Need Not Apply” are not that far in our rearview mirror. But Americans are great at re-inventing themselves, and we have reinvented ourself in this regard too. It’s OK to be an Irish Catholic now (we have other groups to hate).

[An aside: I wonder if this may be one of the rare instances in which the Church has changed more than the world. I can’t imagine that Catholicism would be as accepted as it is now if not for the shift in theological emphasis at Vatican II, particularly in the realms of ecumenism and salvation]

I re-read the Houston speech this afternoon. A lot of religious people – including a lot of Catholics – think that JFK got it all wrong, that he did more harm than good in advocating a radical (maybe erroneously interpreted) separation of Church and State. I am really curious if there were any American Catholics at the time who disagreed with this speech, and I haven’t been able to find an answer.

Would Catholics be disagreeing with the speech if we didn’t already live in a world in which Catholics can do what they want? Would non-Catholics say that their “faith informs their politics” if everyone assumed that “faith=mindless fealty to the Pope” as it is sometimes assumed about Catholics?

Regardless, JFK said what he needed to say that night in Houston, and his presidency helped to show the country that non-Catholics are not as abnormal as they may have thought (though we are plenty abnormal).

The first generation works their fingers to the bone making things, the next generation goes to college and innovates new ideas, the third generation… snowboards and takes improv classes. (Jack Donaghy) 100 years ago someone with my ethnic background couldn’t do whatever they wanted the way that I can.  Catholics of all backgrounds have the freedom and education to become the chattering classes and have opinions on such a milestone.

If there are people out there who are never torn between competing allegiances I say: that must be nice. I don’t know the exact proportions of  political savvy and honest self-searching that emboldened JFK to publically plot out the web of his loyalties, but I believe his example gives us all a model for how to explors those complexities in our own lives – and perhaps a dose of gratitude that most of us won’t have to do so.

JFK & Pope Paul VI, 1963

This entry was posted in Boston, faith, history, politics, religion. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Catholic President

  1. Rae says:

    Well said, as always. And thank you for the reminder of things I rarely think about.

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