John F. Kennedy’s Fateful Mistake

By Deacon Keith Fournier Published on August 6, 2016

I grew up in Boston, in the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Dorchester, Massachusetts. My family had a picture of John F. Kennedy and the Pope on the wall. We took pride in the fact that he was the first Catholic president of the United States of America. When the announcement that he had been assassinated came over the intercom at St. Matthews School, we formed a single line for procession to the Church to pray, and then to weep.

There certainly was a Kennedy Mystique, and not just among Catholics. It is now overshadowed by the Kennedy Mistake. That’s the notion that a Catholic in politics can deny fundamental moral truths and hide behind the “I’m personally opposed but” sophistry. The mistake is rooted in an address President Kennedy gave on September 12, 1960, before the Houston Ministerial alliance.

Kennedy Did Something

Many of the nation’s most influential Protestant leaders had joined together to oppose him because of his Catholic faith. They could sway thousands, perhaps millions of votes. The election was shaping up to be a very close one and Kennedy couldn’t afford to lose any votes to anti-Catholic prejudice. To quell their fears, he made his faith a private matter. That was the fatal mistake.

Near the beginning of the speech, Kennedy declared:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute — where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote — where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference — and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

Here are the really crucial lines: “I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair” and a few paragraphs later, “I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”

He did say at the end of his talk that if his conscience and his public duty conflicted, he would resign. And he challenged his hearers by declaring that “I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith — nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.”

And then he challenged them further when he ended the talk with a strong statement against anti-Catholic prejudice:

If I should lose on the real issues, I shall return to my seat in the Senate, satisfied that I had tried my best and was fairly judged. But if this election is decided on the basis that 40 million Americans lost their chance of being President on the day they were baptized, then it is the whole nation that will be the loser, in the eyes of Catholics and non-Catholics around the world, in the eyes of history, and in the eyes of our own people.

Kennedy’s Appeasement

In this famous talk, the future president didn’t try the “I’m personally opposed, but” line. He knew there were limits to what a Catholic politician could agree to. But in appeasing his opponents by separating himself from his faith — describing himself as a politician who happens to be Catholic — he gave cover to modern Catholic politicians who hide behind the division of private and public life to deny the teaching of the natural law.

Let me be clear. Kennedy never said “I’m personally opposed but.” I don’t think he would have said that about abortion. Yet in his separation of his belief from his politics, in that “who happens also to be a Catholic,” he created the gap that would eventually become the excuse for hundreds of politicians to claim to believe the Church’s teachings while voting like every other pro-choice politician.

This isn’t just a problem with Catholic politicians. It’s a line many other Christians have used to justify their support for abortion against their faith and their conscience.

His fateful mistake has haunted our politics for the last forty years, since the governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, first used the idea that a politician could oppose abortion personally but accept it and even fund it as a matter of public policy. Speaking at Notre Dame in 1984 , Cuomo said, “I accept the Church’s teaching on abortion. Must I insist you do? By law? By denying you Medicaid funding? By a constitutional amendment?” His answer was no. He rejected the idea that we can have “have effective and enforceable legal prohibitions on abortion.”

As I explained last week in Shame on Tim Kaine, being pro-life isn’t only a matter of a Catholic adhering to his religious beliefs. It’s not just “private.” It’s public. The Church tells us abortion is wrong not because that’s part of the special knowledge Christians have through revelation. She tells us it’s wrong because it’s wrongness is a matter of the natural law everyone should know.

We can’t say, as have so many Catholic politicians, that we’re “personally opposed” to abortion but think it should be legal, as Kaine did on Meet the Press. If an unborn child is a real human being with human rights, as he is — as human reason tells us he is — that’s something we have to address in our laws and public policy.

Where the Kennedy Mistake Leads

We can see where “personally opposed but” leads. Mario’s son Andrew is now governor of New York. What does Andrew think about abortion? “It’s her body, it’s her choice” — something he repeated three times in his 2013 state of the state address, calling for the passage of the radically pro-abortion Reproductive Health Act. He thinks pro-life people are “extremists” who have no place in his state.

That’s where “personally opposed but” winds up. Shame on Tim Kaine — and on Mario Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo, and hundreds of other Christians — for making the Kennedy Mistake. Shame on them all for supporting the killing of the innocent. Shame.

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