JFK: 50 Years Later

Half a century after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, disagreement runs deep regarding his place in American Catholic history. Conflicting images of the man — fallen hero of the Camelot myth, cynical and manipulative rogue, or perhaps something harder to define — compete for Catholics’ allegiance.

They compete for the allegiance of non-Catholic Americans too. Yet for Catholics, the ambivalence has a particularly sharp edge. Kennedy was one of our own. Both his death and the meaning of his life are matters of special poignancy for us.

This much at least is clear: Fifty years after his death, Kennedy remains an enormously popular figure. For Catholics, his election had signaled removal of an ancient stain and realization of a long-deferred dream, and his death by an assassin’s bullet barely three years later took on something like the aura of martyrdom in many Catholic minds.

Shocking moment

JFK: A Time Line

Here was one of those traumatic events that stamp memory with the indelible recollection of where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news.

I was in a crowded newsroom where a line of wire service machines along one wall softly rattled out a steady stream of stories on huge rolls of paper. Abruptly the machines paused, then went crazy. Alarm bells rang signaling the imminent arrival of momentous news. The machines began clacking furiously. Someone snatched the first bulletin off one of them and read it aloud:

“President Kennedy was shot today in the streets of downtown Dallas …”

The people in that newsroom were stunned. I thought, “Surely he’ll be OK.”

Millions of Americans must have been thinking the same. For many, the thought became a prayer. But it was not to be. At 1 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, 35th president of the United States — the first, and so far the only, Catholic elected to that office — was pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Surreal aftermath

In the days that followed, grief-stricken Americans watched transfixed as a series of almost surreal events unfolded on their television screens. Some were deeply moving, others merely horrifying.

Pre-eminent among the horrifying events was the killing in Dallas police headquarters of Lee Harvey Oswald, the president’s assassin. Oswald, a misfit leftist, was shot in front of the cameras by nightclub operator Jack Ruby, who was apparently outraged by what Oswald had done.

Oswald’s killing in outlandish circumstances fed rumors that still persist that the presidential assassination was a product of some vast conspiracy — left wing or right wing, depending on who was telling the tale. Fidel Castro, the CIA, the Mafia and the KGB — for all anyone could tell, all of them and others besides — had joined in a murderous cartel to eliminate the president.

Happily for the country’s sanity, Kennedy’s funeral was conducted with dignity and grace, providing a moving catechesis in the faith of his Church in the face of tragedy and death. Eschewing a homily during the Mass in St. Matthew’s Cathedral in downtown Washington, D.C., Auxiliary Bishop Philip Hannan, a Kennedy family friend who later became archbishop of New Orleans, read excerpts from the late president’s writings and talks followed by his inaugural address. Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston presided at the Mass. At a Mass in Boston before flying to Washington, the cardinal, who sometimes was called the Kennedy family chaplain, said of Kennedy, “we shall not see his like again.”

Legacy of Camelot

Since then, the Camelot image of Kennedy and the Kennedy years has grown entrenched with the passing of time.

Among American presidents, Kennedy occupies the topmost ranks on the popularity scale, and his attractive wife and family remain objects of intense interest and passionate devotion. Although historians rate Kennedy as a fair to middling president at best, the Camelot version depicts his presidency as a golden age of extraordinary achievement cut short by untimely death.

But the reality of the Kennedy years — as well as their implications for American Catholicism — is much more complex. In large part, it’s a tangle of misperception, political calculation and unintended consequences — the legacy of a politician of consummate skill and a lifelong Catholic whose Catholicism existed alongside a strong Machiavellian streak. He made it a point never openly to defy the Church, yet — almost certainly without intending it — managed to undermine it just the same.

Political ambitions

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born May 29, 1917, the second of nine children of Joseph P. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Both parents were from politically prominent Irish-American families, and Rose Kennedy’s father, John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, had been mayor of Boston.

Pope Paul VI
President John F. Kennedy is pictured with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in this undated photo. CNS file photo

Growing up deeply resentful of the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice he’d encountered among Boston’s WASP elite, Joe Kennedy made a fortune as an investor and corporate wheeler and dealer. Fortune Magazine ranked him among the top 20 wealthiest Americans. In time, he also became an influential figure in the Democratic Party, serving as President Franklin Roosevelt’s first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and as ambassador to Great Britain.

But rash comments in an interview at the height of Battle of Britain in 1940, expressing the view that “democracy is finished in England” — and perhaps also in the United States — ended Kennedy’s ambassadorial career along with any hopes he might have had of one day being elected president. Thereafter his political ambitions turned to his sons. When the eldest, Joseph Jr., a Navy pilot, was killed in action in 1944, that meant John.

Though raised a Catholic, the young man had received a thoroughly secular education and his religious views tended to be superficial and legalistic — not uncommon among lay Catholics of the day.

During the war he commanded torpedo boats in the South Pacific, earning high marks for bravery in rescuing crew members when his boat was sunk. In 1946 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and in 1952 to the Senate. In 1956, he contested with Sen. Estes Kefauver of Tennessee for a slot on the Democratic ticket as Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. Kennedy lost, but his strong performance situated him in the front ranks of the likely contenders for the party’s presidential nomination four years later.

As Kennedy and his advisers saw it, he had two strikes against him. One was the idea that Joe Kennedy was trying to buy the election for his son. The other was being Catholic.

There was little to be done about the first — the senior Kennedy did bankroll his son’s career to the hilt. As to the second, political scientists at the University of Michigan were later to conclude that the religious issue had been “the strongest single factor” in the election. Nationally, they said, JFK lost 6.5 percent of the votes of Protestant Democrats and independents because he was Catholic. By way of compensation, though, Kennedy got 80 percent of the Catholic vote. Joe Kennedy thought the figure should have been higher and blamed the American bishops, except for Cardinal Cushing, for not doing more to make that happen.

Mixed record

The three years of the Kennedy presidency were crowded with drama. He projected an immensely appealing public image of youth, vigor and dynamic leadership that inspired an upsurge of idealism among young and not-so-young Americans. The idealism was soon to dissolve in reaction to America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam, but for as long as it lasted it redounded powerfully to Kennedy’s advantage.

People in those years sometimes spoke effusively of the “two Johns” — Kennedy and Pope John XXIII, the much loved pope of the Second Vatican Council who died less than six months before the American president.

On matters of substance the Kennedy record was mixed. In the international field, the administration got off to a rocky start with the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961. Engineered by the CIA and approved by Kennedy, the invasion was an attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow the Castro regime. But the invading force, lacking American air cover it apparently expected, was overwhelmed by the Cuban military. The fiasco left the United States with a black eye and fostered an impression of fecklessness and inexperience on the part of the president and his advisers.

Things lurched farther downhill at a summit meeting in Vienna between Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. The Russian leader was aggressive and bullying and treated the American president with something very like contempt. Kennedy told New York Times Washington bureau chief James Reston it had been the “worst thing in my life,” adding: “He thinks because of the Bay of Pigs that I’m inexperienced. Probably thinks I’m stupid. Maybe most important, he thinks that I had no guts.”

The deterioration of the U.S.-Soviet relationship reached a near-terminal state in October 1962 when Khrushchev, apparently emboldened by his perception of Kennedy as weak, sought to gain a new strategic advantage in the struggle with America by placing nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Kennedy responded with a naval blockade and declared his intention to intercept the Russian ships that were carrying the weapons. The two nations teetered on the brink of nuclear war until Pope John and others helped broker a deal under which the ships turned back while the U.S. agreed to pull some obsolescent American missiles out of Turkey.

Not everything was sweetness and light between the United States and the Soviets after that, but in July 1963 the two powers did manage to agree on a limited nuclear test ban treaty. It may have been Kennedy’s finest foreign policy achievement.

On the domestic front, the big issue of the Kennedy years was the campaign for African-American civil rights led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Kennedy was genuinely supportive but often cautious for fear of alienating Southern segregationists who played a large role in the Democratic Party. During a White House meeting not long before the famous March on Washington in August 1963, he was cool to the idea and warned King against “the wrong kind of demonstration at the wrong time.”

Summing up the 35th president in his widely praised book “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” (Simon & Schuster, $44.99), historian Richard Reeves says he was “a gifted professional politician reacting to events he often neither foresaw nor understood, handling some well, others badly, but always ready with plausible explanations.”

Public persona

Like many holders of the office before and since, Kennedy presented a public face that often failed to match reality. That was true, for example, regarding his health. Asked if he had Addison’s disease, a potentially terminal failure of the adrenal gland, he said flatly, “I never had Addison’s disease.” But he did. According to Reeves, Kennedy received the last rites of the Church at least four times as an adult, and was “something of a medical marvel, kept alive by complicated daily combinations of pills and injections.”

So also of his relations with women. Like his father, Kennedy was a womanizer who, despite his image as a devoted husband and father, was serially unfaithful to his wife. Before a 1963 audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, he passed the night in a commandeered villa with a woman who was brought in for the occasion. The next day, he and the pope spent 18 minutes talking about world peace.

During his three years in the White House, Kennedy avoided confrontations about his religion while taking stands opposed to official Church views on issues like aid to parochial schools and U.S. diplomatic recognition of communist-ruled Yugoslavia. Few Catholics raised objections. To a great extent, the religious issue had been worked out during the 1960 presidential campaign, and what the president did later was essentially what he’d said he would do.

The Houston speech

What that would be was signaled by Kennedy in an interview with Look magazine well before the campaign even began. “His theme is that religion is personal, politics are public, and the twain need never meet and conflict,” wrote journalist Fletcher Knebel. Reactions in the Catholic press were quick and strong. “To relegate your conscience to your ‘private life’ is not only unrealistic, but dangerous as well,” said Ave Maria, a Catholic weekly published at the University of Notre Dame.

But the issue of Kennedy’s religion would not go away, and once the campaign got underway the Catholic issue heated up, coming to a boil in early September 1960. A group of 150 prominent Protestant leaders headed by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a popular preacher and author of the best-selling “The Power of Positive Thinking,” issued a statement calling the Catholic Church a “political organization” and declaring that neither Kennedy nor any Catholic could “withstand the determined efforts of the hierarchy to work its will in American political life.”

The candidate moved fast to respond. On Sept. 12, 1960, speaking to an audience of Protestant ministers in Houston, Kennedy delivered one of the most important speeches of his career — and also one of the most significant American political declarations of the century. In it he sought to disarm suspicion that he would be influenced by his faith in performing his duties as president. On the crucial subject of conscience he said this:

“Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision … in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

Kennedy’s words were an unconditional affirmation that autonomous individual conscience takes precedence over any other source of moral guidance. Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray, the preeminent American moral theologian on church and state, later called the position that “I have a right to do what my conscience tells me to do, simply because my conscience tells me to do it” a “perilous theory” that ends in “subjectivism” contrary to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

Lasting consequences

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as president on Nov. 22, 1963, as Lady Bird Johnson and Jacqueline Kennedy look on aboard Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, Texas. CNS file photo

Almost 50 years after Kennedy spoke, another prominent Catholic, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (then archbishop of Denver, now of Philadelphia), addressed another group of Protestant ministers in Houston about the significance of that earlier event. Calling JFK’s assertions “sincere, compelling, articulate — and wrong,” he said Kennedy “profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics but other religious believers in America’s public life and political conversation.”

Christians, Archbishop Chaput said, “have a mandate to share [the] Gospel of truth, mercy, justice and love. ... Real Christian faith is always personal, but it’s never private.”

Countless American Catholic politicians have followed the path marked out by John Kennedy in his 1960 Houston address and the three years of his presidency. JFK did not have to confront issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, but, whether they realize it or not, Catholic officeholders and candidates who lend their support to these things now take their lead from him.

Before and during the White House years, John Kennedy was repeatedly photographed attending Mass. There was never any question of his disavowing the Church, much less quitting it. Along with being witty and glamorous, he was unapologetically Catholic. And all of that — the glamour as much as the religion — went a long way to silencing the ancient slur that a practicing Catholic couldn’t serve in the nation’s highest office. Catholics were understandably proud.

But this story has a darker side.

Kennedy was a working model of a Catholic politician distancing himself from his faith on matters of public policy. Then as now, the issue wasn’t taking orders from the pope and bishops — something those supposedly power-hungry ecclesiastics neither expect nor even want — but how to apply Christian principles and values to real-world politics. Kennedy’s innovative and influential approach was to offer assurances he wouldn’t even try. We are still living with the consequences of that.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.