Archbishop Chaput responds to criticisms of JFK speech

Archbishop Chaput responds to criticisms of JFK speech

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver.


Following criticism of his recent JFK speech by an Italian scholar, Archbishop Charles Chaput responded today, addressing each argument raised against his lecture. The prelate said that although he was grateful for the Italian professor's comments, “he and I clearly differ” not only on the implication's of JFK's 1960 speech, but also on the role of religion in American public life and the “proper understanding” of separation of Church and state.

On Wednesday, Vatican expert Sandro Magister published Archbishop Chaput's response to the scholar on his website Chiesa. Before presenting archbishop's reply, Magister discussed responses he received from Americans supporting the prelate's JFK arguments, most notably from Prof. James Hitchcock of St. Louis University, whose letter Magister published as well. Prof. Hitchcock reiterated that Kennedy's speech marked a definitive break in the public friendship between religion and democracy.

Magister previously published an essay on April 11 by Luca Diotallevi, a sociology professor at the University of Roma Tre, who raised several critiques of the Archbishop's March 1 lecture at Houston Baptist University.

At his lecture in Texas, the Denver archbishop criticized President John F. Kennedy's historic 1960 Houston campaign speech about his Catholic faith’s impact on his political decisions.

Calling the speech “sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong,” Archbishop Chaput said Kennedy’s view divided private beliefs from public duties, set the national interest over and against religion, and began “the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way.”

Responding to the prelate's remarks, Diotallevi questioned in his essay whether or not Kennedy's speech was “secular,” given that one of the sources for the late president's text was John Courtney Murray, a Jesuit scholar. Diotallevi claimed the Jesuit's influence on the speech was “easy to trace.”

The Italian scholar also took issue with the archbishop's argument that Kennedy had to convince “uneasy” Protestant ministers that his faith wouldn't impede his duties as president. Protestant pastors, said Diotallevi, are “anything but secularists.”

Additionally, Diotallevi claimed that Archbishop Chaput's use the of the word “Church” was too broad, and also expressed worry that some members of widespread American protestantism and Catholic fringe groups might propose a relationship between politics and religion in which the latter becomes “an instrument (albeit valuable and well rewarded) of the former.” In light of this, he questioned whether Archbishop Chaput’s 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.

In response the first argument raised by Italian professor, Archbishop Chaput replied on Wednesday that although “Professor Diotallevi suggests that Jesuit John Courtney Murray's influence on the Kennedy speech is 'easy to trace,'” in reality, “Father Murray, by his own account, had little influence on the Kennedy speech.” The prelate then pointed out that Fr. Murray himself noted that “most of his counsel was ignored” by the late president and that anyone “steeped in Murray’s writings who reads the Kennedy speech will see why Murray distanced himself from the 1960 text.”

Addressing Diotallevi's second critique, Archbishop Chaput stated that “the 1960 Kennedy speech, in the context of the times, sounded quite congenial to Protestant ears because it neutralized worries about Kennedy's Catholic roots.” However, “it had a stealth content with far-reaching and drastic implications, alien to the American historical experience.”

“The damage became clear only with the passage of time,” he added. “Whether Kennedy intended the harshly secularist consequences of his speech or not, is irrelevant.”

“Third,” the archbishop wrote, “in taking issue with my use of the word 'Church' throughout my talk, Diotallevi unfortunately seems to have overlooked key sections of my actual remarks.”

“Perhaps this is an issue of translation, and I have misunderstood his concern. To reprise what I actually said: 'Christianity is not mainly – or even significantly – about politics. It's about living and sharing the love of God. And Christian political engagement, when it happens, is never mainly the task of the clergy. That work belongs to lay believers who live most intensely in the world.'”

“Nowhere do I suggest that the hierarchical structure of the Church is the preferred manner for Catholic interaction with the political order,” he stressed.

“Like nearly every other citizen of the United States, including the late John Courtney Murray, I believe strongly in the separation of Church and state, properly understood and as the American Founders intended it.”

Addressing Diotallevi's concerns that he is encouraging the position of widespread American protestantism and Catholic fringe groups, the archbishop said, “Let me respond simply by noting that the pro-life and pro-family witness of American evangelicals is commendable. I only wish that it were emulated more fully by many of those American Catholics who describe themselves as 'liberal' or 'progressive'.”

Evangelicals, Catholics and members of all other faiths who “speak out in defense of the sanctity of life and the dignity of marriage, deserve praise, not derision,” asserted Archbishop Chaput. “They labor in the tradition of activists for civil rights – a moral cause led by religious believers – who refused to 'privatize' their faith.”

“Of course, every political movement has its zealots and opportunists,” Archbishop Chaput noted, “But Christians are called to be the best of good citizens. We have a duty to work for justice and the common good. We may not excuse ourselves from that obligation by citing the foolishness, selfishness, or hypocrisy of others, or the human imperfections of the political causes that deserve our energetic support.”

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