.- Reflecting upon Archbishop Charles Chaputâs speech about John F. Kennedy and U.S. church-state relations, an Italian academic has questioned whether Kennedyâs Houston speech in fact advanced secularism. Warning against subordinating religion to politics, he suggested the archbishop himself assumes too strong a connection between church-state separation and political institutions being indifferent to religion.
In a March 1 lecture at Houston Baptist University, the Archbishop of Denver criticized President John F. Kennedy's historic 1960 Houston campaign speech about his Catholic faithâs impact upon his political decisions.
Calling the speech âsincere, compelling, articulate â and wrong,â Archbishop Chaput said Kennedyâs view divided private beliefs from public duties, set the national interest over and against religion, and began âthe project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way.â
The archbishopâs criticisms were themselves critiqued by Luca Diotallevi, a sociology professor at the University of Roma Tre and a former senior fellow at the Harvard Divinity School. Diotallevi, a specialist in political science who is trusted by the Italian bishopsâ conference, published his critique of Archbishop Chaput on Chiesa, the site of Vatican expert Sandro Magister.
In his essay, Diotallevi made two critical observations and suggested two avenues of research.
First, he questioned whether the character of Kennedyâs speech was in fact âsecular.â One of the sources for the text was a commentary prepared for the candidate by Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J. Fr. Murray had played a critical role in the drafting of the Second Vatican Council document on religious freedom âDignitas Humanae.â
Diotallevi claimed Murrayâs influence on Kennedyâs speech was âeasy to traceâ and thus casts doubt on its âsecularâ nature.
Archbishop Chaput had said Kennedy âneeded to convince 300 uneasy Protestant ministers, and the country at large, that a Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nationâs chief executive. Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and went on to be elected.â
To this, Diotallevi warned about the need for an accurate analysis of the origins of the âsecularâ American culture in the years surrounding Kennedyâs election. He noted that his audience of Protestant pastors was âanything but âsecularistsâ.â
âA seasoned politician like John Kennedy would never have addressed an audience of that kind, in the hope of gaining its support, by proposing an attenuation or elimination of the public dimension of the Christian experience,â Diotallevi commented.
An analysis of the origins of secularism should distinguish among the many components of the North American âProtestant world,â he added.
Turning to his own analysis, Diotallevi argued that âChurchâ was too broad a concept. He listed three âmanifestationsâ of the Church: the action of the baptized person who assumes and exercises political responsibilities; a public statement by the episcopate; and the exercise of an ecclesiastical power like the appointment of a bishop or the civil validation of a marriage celebrated with a religious ceremony.
Only in cases similar to the third example does the separation of powers become relevant, he argued. Using the concept âChurchâ makes unclear which model of political-religious relations is being defended and which is being criticized.
Diotallevi claimed that Archbishop Chaputâs interpretation of the First Amendment could be âcounterproductive.â In his view, separation between political powers and religious powers is âa sign of Christian roots and influence.â
The Italian scholar warned of the risk that some might propose a relationship between politics and religion in which the latter becomes âan instrument (albeit valuable and well rewarded) of the former.â
He worried that some âevangelicalâ or neoconservative positions among Protestants and in âsome fringes of the Catholic worldâ might take this approach.
Further, he questioned whether Archbishop Chaputâs speech at times put forward the view that the separation between Church and state must be rejected if one does not want indifferent political institutions. Diotallevi argued that a true understanding of religious freedom shows that this ârigid lineâ is âdeceptive.â
Abandoning that understanding and accepting that a state should not be separated from a Church create the âgrave riskâ of a possible subjugation of religion and eventually of the Church.
He said religious freedom as understood in the U.S. or in Dignitas Humanae shows how religion and politics can be separated without indifferent political institutions and without the public irrelevance of the Church.
Diotallevi added that the simple public presence of the Church relativizes all political power.
âBeyond appearances, the Church and the Gospel gain nothing from conceding too much to political power, not even when it is friendly.â
Analyzing the differences between the archbishop and the scholar, Chiesa's Sandro Magister said the dispute is ânot simply academicâ but at the center of the confrontation between his policies and the American bishops especially on issues of life, family and education.