Kennedy Case. The Bishop Flunks the Professor

The third installment in a dispute that divides the Church and the political field, not only in the United States. The archbishop of Denver, Chaput, rejects the criticisms of Professor Diotallevi, and reiterates that Kennedy had a “morally destructive” effect on two generations of Catholic politicians

by Sandro Magister


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ROME, April 21, 2010 – The defense of John Kennedy – or better, of his “doctrine” on the relationship between religion and politics – made by Professor Luca Diotallevi in reply to the harsh criticisms of the first Catholic American president by the archbishop of Denver, Charles J. Chaput, did not go unnoticed.

Chaput had expressed his criticisms of Kennedy in a speech last March 1 at the Baptist University of Houston, reproduced in its entirety by http://www.chiesa:

> The Doctrine of the Catholic Kennedy? Worthless

Professor Diotallevi, a sociologist of religion, student of American society, and adviser to the Italian bishops’ conference, replied to Chaput on April 12, also on http://www.chiesa:

> Saving the Catholic Kennedy. A Reply to Archbishop Chaput

And now the archbishop of Denver critiques the criticisms of Diotallevi, and reiterates and clarifies his own theses, in the text reproduced further below.


But http://www.chiesa has received other comments from the United States on Diotallevi’s postions. We’ll highlight three of them.

1. James Brady wrote to us from Gering, Nebraska, saying that Kennedy, in addressing his historic 1960 speech to an audience of Protestant pastors, knew that their mistrust concerned precisely his being Catholic. And so “he sold out his Catholic beliefs for political gains. I remember this very well because my Protestant parents were concerned about a ‘Catholic’ as president. When he sold out, that concern fell away.”

2. Christopher C. Caron also wrote to us, from Washington, DC, that the “de-Catholicizing” of the candidate Kennedy was what the the Protestants were demanding, and that he gave in gladly. Intentional or not, the effect was devastating: “The average Catholic in the United States understood it to mean that they no longer must listen to their religion in the formation of public policy. This was the lesson learned, and virtually no Bishop refuted this most basic error. The effect of this speech was to secularize American Catholics.”

3. Finally, it is worth noting the commentary sent to us by James Hitchcock, a professor of history at Saint Louis University and the author of works on religion in America, including “Catholicism and Modernity,” Crossroads, 1978, and “The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life,” Princeton University Press, 2004.

Professor Hitchcock denies that the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray inspired Kennedy’s speech, as Diotallevi maintains.

He also denies that the Protestant pastors to whom Kennedy was speaking were expecting him to reduce the role of religion in public life. Their mistrust was focused on the presidential candidate’s membership in the Catholic Church.

Above all, Hitchcock shows that the speech by Kennedy marked a real break with the great American tradition of public friendship between religion and democracy. A break begun by a ruling of the Supreme Court in 1947, which changed the meaning of separation between Church and state, and fostered by the secularizing teaching of a highly influential philosopher like John Dewey.

The commentary from Professor Hitchcock is reproduced in its entirety on this page, after the one by Archbishop Chaput.



By Charles J. Chaput

I’m grateful to Professor Diotallevi for his comments on my March 1 talk at Houston Baptist University. He and I clearly differ in our interpretation of John Kennedy’s 1960 Houston speech on the role of religion in American public life. We also differ on the proper understanding of the “separation of Church and state” in light of my nation’s founding documents and history. I offer here a few thoughts in response to his remarks.

First, Professor Diotallevi suggests that Jesuit John Courtney Murray’s influence on the Kennedy speech is “easy to trace.” Regrettably, Father Murray, by his own account, had little influence on the Kennedy speech. In fact, if Murray had played the role Diotallevi suggests, it would have been a different and far better speech. It’s true that Murray, along with John Cogley and others, was consulted in the development of the Kennedy text. But as Murray himself later noted, most of his counsel was ignored. In Murray’s words, Kennedy “was far more of a separationist than I am.” Anyone steeped in Murray’s writings who reads the Kennedy speech will see why Murray distanced himself from the 1960 text.  Kennedy’s view of religion as an essentially private matter, with little bearing on a leader’s public duties, differs sharply from Murray’s beliefs about the relationship of Church and state, and faith and public life.

Second, Diotallevi suggests that Kennedy would never have preached a radical separation of faith and the public square to an audience of Protestant ministers accustomed to “the Christian experience manifesting itself in every aspect of public life.” But again regrettably, the professor has misread my March text. As Jesuit scholar Mark Massa notes in his own essay (which I quote at length in my talk) 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. But 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. Whether Kennedy intended the harshly secularist consequences of his speech or not, is irrelevant. The important thing is that he took the American “faith and public life” discussion in a very new direction, and he set the stage for two generations of Catholic political leaders to separate their religiously-informed moral beliefs from their political witness in a convenient but morally destructive way.

Third, 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.” Several lines later, I note that “Christians individually and the Church as a believing community engage the political order as an obligation of the Word of God.”

Contrary to what the professor seems to be saying, there is nothing “very complicated” in these ideas. They are plain and straightforward, flowing rather obviously from the Gospel. Nowhere do I suggest that the hierarchical structure of the Church is the preferred manner for Catholic interaction with the political order. In fact, I say just the opposite. Diotallevi seems to infer from my comments a kind of crypto-integralism. Given a European frame of reference, this may be understandable. But nothing in the actual text of my remarks supports that curious view, and for good reason: 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.

And what do I mean by a “proper” understanding of Church-state separation? I mean exactly what the American bishops meant when speaking about our nation’s constitutional legacy in their excellent 1948 pastoral letter, “The Christian in Action.” For very shrewd pragmatic reasons, John Kennedy selectively referenced – and also selectively ignored – the content of that pastoral letter in his 1960 Houston speech. Professor Diotallevi seems unaware of it. But as a scholar, he might find it useful to complete his understanding of the American political tradition – and Kennedy’s departure from it.

Finally, the professor seems to worry that my remarks run the risk of encouraging “some of the ‘evangelical’ or neoconservative positions most widespread in the American Protestant world, but also in some fringes of the Catholic world.” 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 and Catholics who (along with Eastern Orthodox Christians, Latter-day Saints, many observant Jews, and others) speak out in defense of the sanctity of life and the dignity of marriage, deserve praise, not derision. They labor in the tradition of activists for civil rights – a moral cause led by religious believers — who refused to “privatize” their faith. Their witness may be out of harmony with John Kennedy’s remarks in Houston; but they are fully in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s actions in Selma.

Of course, every political movement has its zealots and opportunists. Political engagement will sometimes be marked by excesses of enthusiasm and a lack of prudence. And some people will inevitably seek to use the Gospel and the Church for their own partisan advantage. 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.



by James Hitchcock

Luca Diotallevi’s reply to Archbishop Charles Chaput (“Saving the Catholic Kennedy: A Reply to Archbishop Chaput”, http://www.chiesa, April 12, 2010) is abstract to a degree that makes it difficult to understand his point fully. As far as I do understand him, this abstractness is heightened by his inattention to actual American history.

The American Constitution intended to foreclose any possibility of an official national church. (Some individual states had such churches as late as the 1830’s.) But throughout American history there was a broad consensus that religion was nonetheless the necessary source of moral wisdom. Political leaders almost routinely stated that, without a citizenry whose values were formed by religion, a democratic society was not possible.

Thus the slavery issue was debated (on both sides) on religious grounds, polygamy was forbidden, Protestants (not Catholics) enacted laws against abortion and contraception, most business was forbidden on Sunday, and at one time the use of alcohol was banned. Few people considered these things a violation of the Constitution.

There was a broad moral consensus in which Catholics shared, but in the public schools, until the 1960’s, Protestantism dominated, through officially authorized prayers and Bible readings.

Beginning in 1947 the Supreme Court began to interpret “separation of church and state” in an entirely new way, based on a faulty historical understanding. This led to a new jurisprudence traceable to the influence of certain secular-minded intellectuals, notably John Dewey, the most influential American philosopher, who did indeed favor something like European “laïcité”.

That was the context of Kennedy’s 1960 speech to the Protestant clergy.

Professor Diotallevi is mistaken in suggesting that Father John Courtney Murray wrote the speech. Kennedy consulted Murray, but the speech was written by one of Kennedy’s staff, and Murray considered it highly unsatisfactory, precisely the wrong solution to the issue being posed. Murray believed that the American system rested on an implicit acceptance of natural law, which would, among other things, continue to protect the lives of the unborn.

The challenge Kennedy tried to meet was not the role of religion as such in public life but the role of the Catholic Church specifically. Many of the clergy he addressed still favored prayer and Bible-reading in the public schools, and they were the kind of Protestants who later campaigned against abortion.

At the time of the speech the struggle for the civil rights of blacks was being conducted almost entirely on a religious basis, and clergy who insisted that racial equality was a moral and religious imperative were praised as courageous and prophetic.

Kennedy’s own view is not a mystery. Shortly before his assassination he told a newspaper editor that he favored legalized abortion, and his brother Edward, who served as a senator for many years, consistently favored a wholly secular approach to politics that departed from the mainstream of Americans history.


The complete text of the speech given by John F. Kennedy on Spetember 12, 1960, at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association:

> “While the so called religious issue…”


English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.


About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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