On Nov. 22, 1963, the seventh grade at Baltimore’s Cathedral School was in gym class when we got word that President Kennedy had been shot. A half-hour later, while we were climbing the stairs back to 7B’s classroom, Sister Dolorine’s voice came over the p.a., announcing that the president was dead. Walking into 7B, my classmates and I saw something that shocked us as much as the news we’d just heard: our tough-love homeroom teacher, a young School Sister of Notre Dame, was sobbing, her faced buried in her arms on her desk.
The days of public mourning that followed—their solemnity shattered only by the assassination of the assassin on live TV—were bound to leave an impression on a 12-year-old. Indeed, so great was the impression, and so effective the subsequent myth-making, that a half-dozen or so years later, as a college student beginning to feel the effects of late-‘60s skepticism, I was nonetheless offended when it was first reported that the late president had been a “fearsome girler” (as Ben Bradlee’s father put it).
Still, the magnetic appeal of the man (or the myth, or both) was such that when I first went to Dallas, I was inexorably drawn to the site of the assassination, the Texas School Book Depository and nearby Dealey Plaza. Standing at the window from which the shots that changed American history were fired, I quickly decided that a trained marksman could have easily done, by himself, what the Warren Commission concluded he had done.
I remain grateful to John F. Kennedy for inspiring the conviction that public life ought to accommodate both idealism (without illusions, as JFK described his own approach) and elegance. Fifty years after his death, however, I fear that much of the Kennedy mythos is an obstacle to the flowering of Catholic witness in America—and indeed to a proper understanding of modern American history.
The myth of Camelot, for example, misses the truth about the assassination: that John F. Kennedy was a casualty of the Cold War, murdered by a dedicated communist. “Camelot” also demeaned the liberal anti-communist internationalism that Kennedy embodied; that deprecation eventually led Kennedy’s party into the wilderness of neo-isolationist irresponsibility from which it has yet to emerge.
Then there is the mythology surrounding Kennedy’s 1960 speech on church-and-state, delivered to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association. No one should doubt that hoary Protestant bigotry was an obstacle the Kennedy campaign had to overcome in 1960. Still, a close reading of the Houston speech suggests that Kennedy neutralized that bigotry, not only by deft rhetorical moves that put bigots on the defensive, but by dramatically privatizing religious conviction and marginalizing its role in orienting a public official’s moral compass. Thus Kennedy became, in effect, a precursor of what Richard John Neuhaus later called the “naked public square”: an American public space in which not merely clerical authoritarianism, but religiously-informed moral conviction, is deemed out-of-bounds.
Finally, there is the phenomenon that might be called the Kennedy Catholic: a public official who wears his or her Catholicism as a kind of ethnic marker, an inherited trait, but whose thinking about public policy is rarely if ever shaped by Catholic social doctrine or settled Catholic moral conviction. The many Kennedy Catholics in our public life are one of the last expressions of urban (or suburban), ethnic, Counter-Reformation Catholicism in America; and as such, they evoke a certain nostalgia. Unfortunately, the shallowness of their Catholic formation and the invisibility of Catholic moral understandings in a lot of their judgments make Kennedy Catholics de facto opponents of the Church’s mission in the postmodern world, not protagonists of the culture-reforming Catholicism of the New Evangelization.
At daily Mass in downtown Washington, I often receive Communion while standing on the marble slab in St. Matthew’s Cathedral that marks the place where the president’s casket rested, at the funeral Mass on Nov. 25, 1963. In praying for him there, I also mourn what might have been—and what has been distorted in the half-century since.