Kennedy, in his Sept. 12, 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, said, "I am the Democratic Party's candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic."
"I do not speak for my Church on public matters; and the Church does not speak for me," Kennedy continued. "Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views – in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."
For Shannon, this represents a privatization of Kennedy's Catholic faith. His example often flowed into popular interpretations of the Second Vatican Council.
"The Church is not saying that your faith should be purely private, but it is endorsing what looks like an American model in terms of disestablishment and religious pluralism," Shannon said.
"The big thing is, when Kennedy becomes this great martyr, Catholics feel they've finally arrived," he added. "On what terms? On American terms. They're accepted as Americans, they're not accepted as Catholic Americans. And certainly not accepted because as Catholics they have something distinct to contribute to the country, as Catholics."
Shannon held that a politician like Smith would never have claimed to be a Catholic politician or to have had the right to impose his faith on others. However, "he would never have renounced the Church in the way that Kennedy did. It was a matter of tone and style."
For Shannon, Kennedy's statement is a harsh one – he could have taken the same stand without so strongly distancing himself. Those who say their faith has nothing to do with their politics must answer the question, "Where do you draw your guidance from?"
The situation after Vatican II
With the example of Kennedy, and popular interpretations of the Second Vatican Council, both conservative and liberal Catholics would cite the pluralistic nature of democracy as a reason to privatize their faith.
"They start saying 'various positions are rooted in my faith, and therefore they are private'," Shannon said.
Both liberal and conservative Catholics started making the distinction. Even on abortion, the conservative writer William F. Buckley, Jr. in March 1966 column, claimed that the principal meaning of the Second Vatican Council was that other men must be free to practice their conscience, and if they do not believe abortion is wrong then anti-abortion laws would contradict the Church's position.
"That kind of distinction gathers steam through the mid-60s and '70s, and is given its most famous formulation by Mario Cuomo at Notre Dame, significantly, as he is seeking national office," Shannon said.
In his Sept. 13, 1984 speech sponsored by the University of Notre Dame's Department of Theology, Cuomo justified his pro-abortion rights position by saying Catholic public officials live a "political truth" which holds "that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful."
"I accept the Church's teaching on abortion. Must I insist you do? By law? By denying you Medicaid funding? By a constitutional amendment? If so, which one? Would that be the best way to avoid abortions or to prevent them?" the governor asked.
Shannon summarized Cuomo's position as "personally opposed but publically agnostic." The governor said his duty as a public servant was to uphold "the law of the land," but he does not give consideration to his ability to change the law.
This built on the deep rupture within the Church over Bl. Paul VI's reaffirmation that the use of artificial birth control is sinful, including use of the then-novel birth control pill.
"Those issues are the basic ones that divide liberal and conservative Catholics to this day," Shannon said.
This in turn has led to deeper divisions.
Where we are today
Pro-life advocates first sought a home in the Democratic Party on the assumption that its policies focused on caring for people and were consistent with Catholic social justice tradition.
This effort continued through the mid-1970s, when pro-life Democrats, stymied by feminist resistance, started to migrate into the Republican Party as it slowly converted to a pro-life view.
However, Shannon noted, these former Democrats then adopt "a whole range of political positons that most Catholics would have never thought have adopting, because they saw them as 'un-Catholic': a general endorsement of the free market, a comparative lack of concern for the poor, a tendency to blame the poor for their poverty."
"In earlier times, the Catholics were the poor and they were being blamed for their poverty," Shannon said. "Today, they are clearly divided in their Church, just as they are divided in their politics"
He acknowledged that a united Catholic position would face difficulty finding a home in either party at present.
"The cultural positions of the Church are going to offend the Democrats, the economic positions of the Church are going to offend Republicans," he said, pondering the state of Catholics today.
"What troubles me is that they're seeking the solution to this division more through politics than through the Church itself. They're thinking: 'If our side wins at politics then we're going to drive the others out of the Church, and we'll win in the Church'."
Shannon proposed another path.
"Why not heal the wounds and divisions in the Church first? Certainly, be good citizens, be involved in the political process, but do so from a united Catholic position."