John F. Kennedy in Houston, Fifty Years Later

On September 12, 1960, Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party’s candidate for President of the United States, went to Texas and addressed the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance. The background to Kennedy’s speech was ardent opposition to his Catholicism and accusations that, if elected, he would be controlled by Catholic authorities. Against the advice of many of his own senior staff, Kennedy decided to face the issue head-on, and to do so in a context that was anything but friendly.

Kennedy’s speech is one of the most memorable of his political career, and it may have been essential to his narrow victory over Vice President Richard M. Nixon just a few weeks later. And yet, what strikes us now is that this speech actually set the stage for a very unfortunate turn in national politics.

In essence, Senator Kennedy argued that his Roman Catholic faith would not be a consequential matter in his political life. He stated:

But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again — not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.

Note his assertion that his religious convictions “should be important only to me,” and thus of no public consequence. In the most famous line of the speech, he said: “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.” In his book, The Ordeal of Civility, John Murray Cuddihy points to that language of “happens to be” as the language of avoiding or denying significance to beliefs.

Looking back, the Houston speech was probably a political necessity for Kennedy. A careful reading of the text will reveal much to admire, as well as many areas of concern. But, in the end, the significance of this speech lies in its role as the paradigm for so many that would follow, in which politicians and public figures would insist that their religious convictions and beliefs have no public consequence.

We must expect more than that. What we need is for politicians and candidates to tell us what they believe, and how this will be translated into a governing philosophy and moral/political decision-making. “Happens to be” is just not enough.

The Evolution of Catholicism

One cannot understand the theology of the Reformers without first understanding the theology of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century.  Similarly, an understanding of contemporary Catholicism is necessary for any comprehensive understanding of evangelical identity.  While Catholic identity is a contested issue among Roman Catholic theologians and historians (as is true also within evangelicalism), the issues and controversies of modern Catholicism are extremely instructive.

In The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism [HarperOne] Professor Richard McBrien of the University of Notre Dame offers a very helpful guide to these controversies and to the evolution of Catholicism in the modern era.  He directs his primary attention to issues of ecclesiology with his church, and he offers a well-written guide that should be of interest to evangelicals seeking to understand what the Roman Catholic Church now teaches on a number of crucial issues.

McBrien is himself no stranger to controversy, and he is often criticized by more conservative Catholics.  His more liberal reading of recent Catholic history (see especially his analysis of Vatican II) is most interesting.  On several points of his analysis, I found him to be very insightful and helpful in summarizing.  As is so often the case, understanding the Catholic arguments helps in the task of sharpening evangelical arguments.  As in the sixteenth century, the issue of the Gospel remains central.

This excerpt serves to illustrate:

Ecclesiology has already begun to respond to this new situation.  There is a greater effort now to relate Christianity to the other great religions of the world and to develop new understandings of the availability of salvation, not only outside the Catholic Church, but outside the Body of Christ as a whole.  Ecclesiology has begun to assume an interfaith as well as an ecumenical character.  This development, of course, has not been without controversy thus far, as the many debates about Dominus Iesus, the document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in September 2000, dramatically illustrate.  But this is the way the world and the Church are moving–in a global and multicultural direction–and so inevitably are the Church’s ecclesiologies.

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