JFK and the Catholic Vote
In September, 1960, in his famous address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, John F. Kennedy said, “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.” It has been generally agreed that that speech was the key that unlocked the door to the presidency for Catholics (at least for one of them).
Forty-seven years later, the Catholic Church is indeed telling Catholics how to vote. Was JFK lying? Or is the Church telling us that he was wrong?
I write as a former Catholic. I left the Church for good after the pedophile scandal. Even the scandal itself didn’t drive me out, because one of the greatest strengths of the Catholic Church is forgiveness, and I saw the pedophile scandal as an opportunity for me to give back to the Church a little of the forgiveness it had always held out to me.
Wrong in one thing does not mean wrong in all, but by the Church’s own rules, forgiveness requires contrition and penance, “a firm purpose of amendment.” Instead of that, I saw the Church digging in, getting leaner and meaner, writing off American and European liberals; telling people how to vote. I hold the Catholic Church partially responsible for all of the disasters of George Bush’s second term, for four years of casualties in Iraq, American and Iraqi.
Abortion has been a hot-button political issue for a long time, but from the 1970s through the 1990s, whenever the American Catholic Church gave us direction on voting, it acknowledged that other issues were important too, issues of war and peace, social and economic justice. In every election cycle, it seemed that one party was consistently right on economic and social justice, the other on abortion, a split that left the ultimate choice up to the individual conscience. The Church claims to base its decisions on eternal verities; what among the eternal verities has altered since the 1970s? At what point did God change His mind?
This is my plea to my former fellows: Don’t let the Church tell you how to vote. Ask yourself a couple of questions: Has the Catholic Church demonstrated a fundamental understanding on issues of human sexuality and reproduction? Or, alternatively, has it occurred to you that if the bishops had had children of their own, they would have handled the pedophiles very, very differently? Is the Church’s position on abortion exactly what you would expect as the product of some 60 generations of (arguably) celibate men with a deep mistrust of women’s decision-making ability?
The Church has every right to support anti-abortion activists in appropriate ways. Everyone with a strong position on this issue has a right, maybe a duty, to advocate their position — civilly. But when it publicly denies sacraments to politicians, when it casts the shadow of grave sin over its parishioners for the way they cast their secret ballot, the Catholic Church crosses a very important line, the line that has always separated church and state in this country.
That’s when his Church makes a liar of JFK.
— Jack McCarthy, Everett