What JFK wrought at Houston

Sandro Magister’s “Chiesa” (Church) newsletter (available at http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it) is an indispensable resource for anyone seriously following the major debates within the Catholic Church, the ideas shaping the pontificate of Benedict XVI, and the goings-on of the Church’s central administration. Sandro and I are friends and were sources for each other during the interregnum between the death of John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI. In my experience, he’s that rarest of birds in the Italian journalistic aviary—someone who doesn’t make stuff up.

Sometime, though, even Homer nods.

In his April 11 “Chiesa,” Sandro gave a lot of space to a critique by Professor Luca Diotallevi of a March 1 speech by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver. In that speech, Chaput (whose diocesan newspaper syndicates this column) criticized John F. Kennedy’s September 1960 address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association as a harbinger of what Richard John Neuhaus would later call the “naked public square”—an American public space shorn, not only of religious arguments, but of religiously-informed moral arguments made in a genuinely public manner. Professor Diotallevi thinks Chaput got Kennedy wrong. I think Professor Diotallevi got both Kennedy and Chaput wrong.

Diotallevi suggests that John Courtney Murray, who would later play a significant role in shaping Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, was the chief ghostwriter of JFK’s Houston speech. That’s wrong, and while Murray may have been consulted, he certainly didn’t agree with Kennedy’s assertion at Houston that religious conviction ought not shape the public debate “directly or indirectly”—for that would have ruled out precisely the kind of Catholic natural law public philosophy that Murray urged on America in his seminal 1960 book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition.

Professor Diotallevi may also have misread the character of the anti-Catholic bias that Kennedy faced in 1960. It’s true, as the Italian professor writes, that Kennedy’s Protestant audience was used to Christianity “manifesting itself in every aspect of public life.” But what these men wanted was a Protestant public square; some of them were even unsure that Catholics were Christians. Kennedy’s strategy in meeting that bigotry was not to speak of the ecumenical public philosophy the natural moral law could provide (which would have been the classic Murray move), but to propose an America in which everyone’s Christian convictions were out-of-bounds in public life, whether those convictions were expressed “directly or indirectly.”

Then there is the question of what Catholic politicians, post-JFK, learned from the Houston experience. Very few, alas, learned Murray’s natural law approach to arguing moral truths amidst American pluralism; many of them bought into the secularism in public life that Kennedy made even more explicit in his 1962 commencement address at Yale—a speech that declared the great issues of the time technocratic and managerial rather than philosophical and moral. Read through the prism of the Yale address, the Houston speech on religion in public life looks even more like a matter of JFK playing precursor to the naked public square that Mario Cuomo and John Kerry would promote and defend in 1984 and 2004. Those men, in turn, further confused the abortion debate by declaring the Church’s teaching on life sectarian, rather than grappling with it as it is: a natural law moral argument, devoid of uniquely Catholic theological premises; an argument anyone willing to engage in serious thought can grasp.

The depth of anti-Catholicism in the U.S. in 1960 was such that it may have taken a candidate who was far more a modern rationalist than a man formed by the social doctrine of the Church to break the Catholic glass ceiling in American presidential politics. That’s a point worth debating. What seems clear to me is that Archbishop Chaput had it right, and Professor Diotallevi has it wrong, in their respective analyses of what JFK wrought at Houston.  Kennedy may have defeated Protestant prejudice. But the way he did it prepared the ground for schizophrenic politicians who bracket their moral convictions when they fear being charged by the new bigots—the secularists—with the “imposition” of “sectarian” convictions.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.