Legal expert examines positive, negative effects of JFK's speech on Catholicism

Legal expert examines positive, negative effects of JFK's speech on Catholicism

Prof. Michael McConnell and President John F. Kennedy
Prof. Michael McConnell and President John F. Kennedy


As the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's famous Houston speech on his Catholicism approaches, Prof. Michael McConnell gave a talk at the University of Notre Dame on Friday, discussing both the positive and negative effects of the late president's words. While JFK's address may have won a “great victory” for Catholics against a social climate of bigotry, the legal expert also argued that the president's 1960 speech distancing himself from his faith contributed to the belief that churches are “irrelevant to public affairs.”

Former federal judge Michael McConnell gave his remarks in a discussion titled “Remind Me: Why Did Anyone Care if JFK was a Catholic?” on Sept. 10 in the auditorium of the Hesburgh Center for International Studies. In addition to being a former federal judge, McConnell serves as the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor of Law at Stanford University, and is a leading expert on constitutional law.

McConnell began his talk on Friday by saying, President John F. Kennedy's address “has gone down in history as one of the finest and most effective speeches ever made by a candidate for President of the United States.”

“It addressed the critics’ most powerful fear: that Catholic officeholders would follow the instructions of the Catholic hierarchy on matters of public policy such as birth control, divorce, education, or foreign policy – either because they regarded the church as having final authority on matters touching morality or because of threats of excommunication.”

“By assuring his audience that he would use his own independent judgment, Kennedy largely put that concern to rest,” he noted.

“Even so, one might find some of his language ... excessive,” McConnell said. “He is the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, who 'happens also to be a Catholic.'”

“Happens also to be a Catholic. Does anyone else find those words jarring?”

Continuing his analysis, McConnell recalled, “Senator Kennedy says that religion is his 'private affair,' apparently irrelevant to his public service. That is why it is so unfair for people to be asking these questions instead of focusing on the 'real issues.'”

However, McConnell asked, would the soon-to-be president “say the same about other important associations?”

“What if he belonged to NRA, or the Sierra Club, or Council on Foreign Relations? Or any other group that takes positions on matters of public import? Is it unfair for voters to inquire how these memberships might reflect or influence his public life? Why is religion different?”

“Kennedy appears to be saying,” McConnell noted, “that religious associations are private in a sense that other associations are not. That must be because churches are irrelevant to public affairs in a way that other associations are not.”

“This brings me to my first reservation about Kennedy’s speech: It is entirely negative and defensive.  He tells us why we should not vote against him because of his Catholicism.  He does not offer any hint of a reason why his Catholicism might be an attractive feature even to some non-Catholics.”

“On every issue he mentions in the speech, with one possible exception,” the judge asserted, “Kennedy distances himself from positions of the Catholic Church.”

“Was there nothing in the social teaching of the Church to which Kennedy could point with pride and approval? You would never know, from Kennedy’s speech, for example, that the Catholic Church was leading the way on the issue of racial segregation, and had been a strong and early supporter of labor unions.”

Kennedy's faith would have also influenced his stance on abortion, which was starting to become a contentious issue in 1960, said McConnell.

If “an unborn child is in fact a person, a child of God, as the Catholic Church teaches, how can that fail to affect an official’s view of proper public policy? The most fundamental commitment of the social compact is the protection of all persons, and especially the weak, from private violence.”

“I would think Kennedy’s audience would like to know whether and how Church teaching on such matters might relate to what his conscience teaches him to be the national interest. He might have found his evangelical listeners receptive to the message. It might have suggested to them an affirmative reason, grounded in the public good, to doubt that religious beliefs should be regarded as purely private.”

“More broadly,” McConnell added, “the emphasis of Catholic social thought for the past several hundred years has been on the importance of the common good – a rejection of both the radical individualism of liberal capitalism and the totalitarianism of socialism and communism.”

Addressing Kennedy’s remarks on absolute separation between church and state, McConnell recalled the late president saying that no Catholic prelate “may tell the president how to act, and no Protestant minister may tell his parishioners how to vote.”

“Is that really what the First Amendment means?” McConnell asked. “I would have thought the opposite: Catholic prelates may tell the president whatever they wish and Protestant ministers the same. It is, of course, up to officeholders and voters what weight to give these pronouncements.”

For example, look at the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said McConnell, which gives no shortage of commentary from bishops on all topics relevant today's society. “It is hard to believe Kennedy thought there is anything amiss about that,” he noted.

Ultimately, said McConnell, we “should not underestimate the importance” of JFK's Houston speech. “By running forthrightly, and not apologizing for his Catholicism, and winning, and showing himself to the world as a President of whom we all can be proud, John F. Kennedy won a great victory for inclusion and against bigotry,” he said.

However, “note the way in which he reduced religious belief to accident of birth, or more specifically, to baptism. The question, I would submit, was not whether 40 million Americans baptized into a certain religion are excluded from the presidency, but whether however many millions of Americans who believe in the tenets of their faith are excluded from proper political participation.”

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