The news was so jolting, those old enough to remember it can easily relive the very moment they heard the words. President John F. Kennedy was dead. An assassin's bullet ended the first Catholic president's life on that “dark day in November” in Dallas.
Kennedy had cleared a cumbersome political path for Catholics. No longer just a voting bloc in coalition politics, Catholics got the go-ahead for the top leadership post. But what type of leadership followed that pivotal moment in history?
Some locate the roots of public dissent from Catholic moral teaching in JFK's approach. What is Kennedy's legacy to Catholics involved in public life?
As the 40th anniversary of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination approached, Register correspondent Marjorie Dannenfelser asked Princeton University McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George about Catholics in politics after JFK.
John F. Kennedy's ascendancy was the culmination of Catholic efforts to solidify political acceptance in the United States. Once president, how did his assurances to the nation regarding the secondary role his Catholic faith would play to his presidency undercut that struggle?
In fact, Kennedy himself did not face major issues on which any of his political goals were in conflict with the Catholic faith. The issues he mentioned in his famous speech to the Protestant ministers in Texas — issues such as birth control and divorce — were governed by state, rather than federal, law.
The significance of Kennedy's promise not to let his “private” faith affect his “public” duties would be felt years later when politicians such as Mario Cuomo would cite Kennedy in rationalizing their support for abortion and other evils condemned by Catholic moral teaching.
One must remember that the people Kennedy was seeking to placate or reassure were, in the main, not secularists but Protestants. As preposterous as it now seems — and indeed it was preposterous — many Protestants feared Kennedy would invite the Pope to dictate the public policy of the United States.
How was it possible for Kennedy or anyone to serve two masters — the Constitution and the Holy Father?
There is no conflict between the two. Properly interpreted, there is nothing in the Constitution that a Catholic should reject. Those constitutional doctrines that are incompatible with Catholic faith have been manufactured by willful judges.
For example, there is no right to abortion in the Constitution. The Supreme Court created such a right out of whole cloth in what Justice [Byron] White called an exercise of “raw judicial power.” The Holy Father has praised America's constitutional principles and challenged us as a people to live up to them. Mother Teresa did the same.
Catholics now number 125 in the U.S. House. Of those, 72 are Democrats. Less than half of those Catholic Democrats (29) voted for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. How does the sublimation of Catholic moral teaching in public life evidence itself in Catholic political involvement today — especially in JFK's own Democratic Party?
It is manifest above all in the almost complete collapse of support for the pro-life cause among Catholic politicians who are members of the Democratic Party. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the U.S. Senate, and Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House, are both Catholics. Yet both are dedicated supporters of abortion.
Indeed, it is hard to think of a nationally prominent Democrat, Catholic or otherwise, who is pro-life. At this point, the Democratic Party, from the pro-life point of view, is nearly a dead loss.
[Cuomo's misuse of Kennedy's words] provided the basic premise for the pernicious — and absurd — proposition that one may be “personally opposed” to abortion yet support its unrestricted legalization and even its public funding. The philosophical roots of Cuomoism are in Kennedy's speech to the Protestant ministers in Texas.
Would you explain “Cuomoism” and how it has lead to a misreading of the Constitution?
Cuomoism begins from a misinterpretation of the Constitution as requiring the privatization of religious and even moral beliefs. These, Cuomo insists, are to have no bearing on one's decisions as a public official. One's “personal” judgment that an act or practice is immoral cannot serve as a legitimate ground for its prohibition. [Thus, he famously claimed to be “personally opposed” to abortion but “pro-choice.”]
Of course, Cuomo himself violated these strictures in vetoing the death penalty when he was governor of New York. When confronted with this blatant contradiction of his own principles, he absurdly claimed his opposition to capital punishment — which he denounced as “unfair, degenerate, degrading, dehumanizing,” etc. — involved no moral judgment.
How does Pope John Paul II's approach to faith in public life (articulated in the Vatican's recent “Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life”) contrast with this secularist approach?
The Pope's view is that citizens and public officeholders have a solemn duty to act in the political sphere to honor the sanctity of life and preserve the integrity of marriage and the family. These are not merely “private” concerns. They are matters of public responsibility. They are not morally optional.
Citizens and politicians who support abortion and the deconstruction of marriage fail in their most fundamental civic responsibilities. These responsibilities are in no way uniquely Catholic; they apply to all citizens and all public officeholders. They are matters of natural law and the common good.
Yet there is a special scandal when Catholic citizens and politicians support abortion and other forms of grave injustice.
Why single out abortion and marriage as primary areas of Catholic involvement?
Because the sanctity of life and the dignity of marriage and the family are the most important issues of our time. These principles are under massive assault from powerful forces in elite sectors of the culture — including the universities, the media, leading professional associations and the entertainment industry. Even the mainline Protestant churches have in many cases compromised these principles.
The Catholic Church still stands fast in its support, but some of her own clergy and theologians have gone over to the other side. Interestingly, the cultural struggle to protect the unborn and to preserve the institution of marriage has united orthodox Catholics, evangelical Protestants and observant Jews in an unprecedented alliance. The Baptist theologian Timothy George [no relation] calls it “the ecumenism of the trenches.”
What sort of impact did Kennedy's presidency have upon the courts?
Kennedy's judicial appointments were, on the whole, not bad. It should be recalled that Byron White, one of two dissenting justices in Roe v. Wade and the author of a powerful dissent in that case, was a Kennedy appointee.
Of course, abortion was not an issue in Kennedy's own time. The Roe decision came almost a decade after his death. The author of Roe, Harry Blackmun, was a Nixon appointee, as were two of the six justices who joined him in that shameful decision.
Do you see the roots of “Cuomoism” in the debate over the Pledge of Allegiance?
If religion is a “purely private” matter, then any publicly sanctioned acknowledgment of God is out of bounds. On this logic, God must be expelled from the Pledge. Of course, by the same logic the Creator must be expelled from the Declaration of Independence. So the country was founded on a violation of its own founding principles. There is a paradox for you!
In proportion to their numbers in the United States, Catholic involvement is slight and in many cases disorganized. Why?
For too many Catholics, faith is a Sunday-morning business. We Catholics need to challenge ourselves, and each other, to lead lives suffused by love of God and neighbor. The Gospel we profess to proclaim should govern all that we do, including what we do in our capacity as citizens of a democratic republic. Our bishops and priests should not fail regularly to remind us of that duty.
If you are a Catholic who wants to bring your faith into the political lion's den, how can you concretely live John Paul's recent call for Catholic participation in public life?
Pray. Vote. Volunteer. Get active in the two great causes of our day: the protection of the unborn and the defense of marriage and the family. In your activity as citizens, give these causes the priority they deserve. Make it known to candidates — especially Catholic candidates — who support abortion and the deconstruction of marriage that their positions will cost them your votes. Let your family and friends know what you are doing as a citizen and why you are doing it. Encourage others to join you.
Marjorie Dannenfelser writes from Arlington, Virginia.