Italian academic criticizes Archbishop Chaput’s take on JFK speech

Prof.  Luca Diotallevi.
Prof. Luca Diotallevi.


Reflecting upon Archbishop Charles Chaput’s speech about John F. Kennedy and U.S. church-state relations, an Italian academic has questioned whether Kennedy’s 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 faith’s impact upon 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.”

The archbishop’s 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 bishops’ 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 Kennedy’s speech was in fact “secular.” 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 “Dignitas Humanae.”

Diotallevi claimed Murray’s influence on Kennedy’s speech was “easy to trace” and thus casts doubt on its “secular” nature.

Archbishop Chaput had said Kennedy “needed to convince 300 uneasy Protestant ministers, and the country at large, that a Catholic like himself could serve loyally as our nation’s chief executive. Kennedy convinced the country, if not the ministers, and went on to be elected.”

To this, Diotallevi warned about the need for an accurate analysis of the origins of the “secular” American culture in the years surrounding Kennedy’s election. He noted that his audience of Protestant pastors was “anything but ‘secularists’.”

“A 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,” Diotallevi commented.

An analysis of the origins of secularism should distinguish among the many components of the North American “Protestant world,” he added.

Turning to his own analysis, Diotallevi argued that “Church” was too broad a concept. He listed three “manifestations” 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 “Church” makes unclear which model of political-religious relations is being defended and which is being criticized.

Diotallevi claimed that Archbishop Chaput’s interpretation of the First Amendment could be “counterproductive.” In his view, separation between political powers and religious powers is “a sign of Christian roots and influence.”

The Italian scholar warned of the risk that some might propose a relationship between politics and religion in which the latter becomes “an instrument (albeit valuable and well rewarded) of the former.”

He worried that some “evangelical” or neoconservative positions among Protestants and in “some fringes of the Catholic world” might take this approach.

Further, 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. Diotallevi argued that a true understanding of religious freedom shows that this “rigid line” is “deceptive.”

Abandoning that understanding and accepting that a state should not be separated from a Church create the “grave risk” 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.

“Beyond appearances, the Church and the Gospel gain nothing from conceding too much to political power, not even when it is friendly.”

Analyzing the differences between the archbishop and the scholar, Chiesa's Sandro Magister said the dispute is “not simply academic” but at the center of the confrontation between his policies and the American bishops especially on issues of life, family and education.

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