On Friday, Catholic Democrats prayerfully remembered and honored the life of President John F. Kennedy, an American hero and the nation’s first Catholic president, whose legacy cannot be separated from his faith.
David O’Brien, the noted Catholic historian, has penned an inspired piece for US Catholic Magazine on President Kennedy’s legacy. During this weekend, we want to share his eloquent reflection on JFK with you. We feel his words speak for so many of us whose lives were touched by one of our nation’s greatest presidents.
By David O’Brien
John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election was a moment of arrival of American Catholics into the mainstream of American society. His eloquent inaugural, with Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing offering the prayer, seemed to fulfill the promise of American Catholic history. I graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1960 and like many of my generation, I fell in love with John Kennedy. His intelligence, grace, and willingness to confront hard truths (movement on civil rights, resistance to military options during Cuban missile crisis, his American University address) and, yes, his “style” especially, for me, at press conferences, drew me in.
Then, after a thousand days, came the assassination-an experience of what Catholic peace leader James Douglass, drawing on Thomas Merton, calls “the unspeakable.” That experience, over days of national solidarity in grief, took place amid an amazingly integrated series of rituals at once American and Catholic. For those of us descended from European Catholic immigrants, this was the completion of the American Catholic journey: We were no longer outsiders, but insiders. Later we would face deeper truths about racism and war and nuclear weapons and abortion, and we would never know that integration again. Experience, not ideology, forced reconsideration of our American and Catholic commitments-and responsibilities. It is not too much to say that a long history of American-Catholic negotiation aimed at liberation and integration-liberty and justice for all, including us-ended in November, 1963.
The two Johns (in the White House and at the Vatican) did far more with the few years they were given to advance the twin causes of social justice and ecumenism than most men in their positions did in a lifetime. In both circumstances the Church embraced the world anew ending the spiritual and political captivity confining Catholicism to a backward self-imposed ghetto.
There is something telling in contrasting Sen. Kennedy’s speech with Sen. Santorum’s remarks against it. He is openly contemplating creating a “Judeo-Christian culture” distinct from and hostile to the American mainstream. And certain Bishops who are insisting on fighting marriage equality and Obamacare to the last are engaging in that project as well. The two Johns did much to bring Catholicism into the mainstream of American social and religious thought, and I am hopeful the next generation of American Catholics following another forward focused papacy can ensure this legacy endures.
that, since the 1960s, we have had two distinct groups of “American Catholics.” Perhaps the larger group consists of the people whose background and heritage is Catholic, but who have walked away. They don’t go to church much anymore and don’t follow the bishops at all on social issues. The other group is fighting a rear-guard action against these social changes, and increasingly against issues like Obamacare (which, to them, has a social component in birth control).
There’s a pretty small group — and I get the sense you’re in it — who care enough to stay engaged with the Church but disagree with the bishops on these issues.
Personally I see it as a lost cause, though I like much of what Pope Francis is doing. I read recently that the (or some) U.S. bishops were reluctant to stand up for the poor lest they lose their relationship with the Republican Party. I made a mental checklist of all the issues a “Christian” should care about, and the Republican Party was on the wrong side of all of them except the one that (IMO) doesn’t legitimately belong on the list: controlling/judging people’s sexual behavior.
But I think most of my Democratic principles come from my Catholic upbringing, or at least from the lessons I learned about the history of Catholics in Ireland and in this country.
…a substantial group of Catholics who still practice and attend regularly, but also do not adhere to all the teachings of the Church.
My father still attends church, though it’s mostly because his partner makes him. She’s (mostly) on board with church positions on social issues though a Democrat and very liberal economically. He’s really not on board at all but he’s in the pews every week. I know other Catholics who still attend church but follow their own consciences. But most, at least in my generation, have decided it’s not worth going.
I think in 20-30 years the Church will be facing the same demographic problems the mainline Protestants are today. As America, particularly urban America, becomes more and more post-Christian (as is the case in Europe) we will begin to see the numbers come crashing back to Earth. We already see that trend in the Boston Archdiocese, which has less Hispanics to keep it afloat and more dire church and school closures, this trend is less pronounced in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or other urban areas due to the influx of first generation Hispanic immigration. As second generation Hispanics either secularlize, leave the Church for other denominations (largely more charismatic evangelical and pentecostal ones, though the Episcopalian and UMC have experienced dramatic Hispanic growth in Chicago as well), the numbers will come crashing back.
The talk of the conservative triumph, that disaffected traditionalist Anglicans and evangelicals can convert in sufficient numbers to offset those leaving while keeping the church conservative, the ‘Evangelical Catholic’ solution as it were (promoted by Fr. Neuhaus and George Weigel), also seems to be doomed.
There is a great Anglo-Catholic parish on the Northside that we occasionally attend that is young, diverse, very LGBT friendly, liturgically traditionalist and doctrinally conservative on important questions (the trinity, the Creeds, Marian theology) while socially tolerant on unimportant questions (issues of individual conscience and sexuality). That could very well be the future of the Catholic church if it choose to go down that road. Many young people are drawn to more traditional liturgy while also being hyper aware that the old dogmas don’t hold in every circumstance.