JFK: 50 years later

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration as President of the United States, the first (and so far only) Catholic to ascend to the highest office in the land.

Rocco Palmo over at Whispers notes the historic nature of his inauguration for Catholics:

Fifty years ago today, after three centuries of persecution, struggle and prejudice, the American Catholic journey into the nation’s mainstream was accomplished as a member of the fold took up the highest office in the land.

As if the milestone of a half-century wasn’t striking enough on its own, the poignancy of it has increased as the “last link” to those days — Sargent Shriver, the cardinal’s altar boy, Kennedy in-law, father of five and daily communicant who founded the Peace Corps, led Special Olympics and the War on Poverty and whose all-around “life of grace” been praised across the spectrum as “personifying the ideal” of the Catholic public servant — died Tuesday at 95.

There’s no doubt that Catholics have entered the public square. Joseph Biden is the first Catholic Vice-President, John Boehner replaced another Catholic to become Speaker of the House, two-thirds of the Supreme Court is now Catholic and 30% of the Congress is Catholic (we make up 23% of the population). In addition, Catholics have leadership roles in business and other professions.

But what impact do these people have?

In what way are they Catholic? In offering reflection on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s presidential campaign last September, Archbishop Chaput offered caution against too much pride when Catholics achieve certain landmarks.

“What this has actually meant for the direction of American life, however, is another matter. Catholic statistics once seemed impressive. They filled many of us with tribal pride. But they didn’t stop a new and quite alien national landscape, a ‘next America,’ from emerging right under our noses.”

Many Americans are leaving the faith of their parents and grandparents. Some have no faith at all. Chaput noted that 31% of Americans say they were raised in the Catholic faith, yet fewer than 24% of Americans now describe themselves as Catholic. This matters a great deal, the archbishop said.

Traditionally, religious faith has provided the basis for Americans’ moral consensus. And that moral consensus has informed American social policy and law. What people believe—or don’t believe—about God, helps to shape what they believe about men and women. And what they believe about men and women creates the framework for a nation’s public life.

Or to put it more plainly: In the coming decades Catholics will likely find it harder, not easier, to influence the course of American culture, or even to live their faith authentically. (Emphasis his).

As Catholics, we need to remember that influence isn’t just about numbers. And we need to be stop the notion of being a politician or businessman “who happens to be Catholic.”

In public life or in business there should be certain things that we simply won’t do because we are Catholic. Likewise, there must be things we lovingly do because we see in each person the image of our Creator.



  • Betty

    Archbishop Chaput’s view about the state of American Catholicm is based on reality. I have no idea when, where, or why Catholic morality began sliding downhill, but wonder if it’s coincidental with Vatican II, the Vietnam War, and the so-called Sexual Revolution. The times, they are a’changing. Would JFK recognize the sad condition of Catholicism 50 years later? I remember the strong faith of the entire Kennedy family, especially Rose and Bobby. We have too many “cafereria Catholics” today who pick and choose their beliefs, most of which don’t square with the Magisterium.

  • greg smith

    Thomas – I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with your slogan Not Your Average Catholic.” I know you don’t mean it this way, but it gives the impression that there is something wrong or inferior about being an “Average” Catholic. (Statistically with mass attendance, charitable contributions, prayer life I probably fit the average or “mean”) American Catholic. It might be useful to look at Tom Clancy’s comment about my own Irish Catholic community from whence JFK came. In Patriot Games, he has his protagonist John Ryan speaking to the Queen of England. He writes “…we- that is Irish Americans – have made out pretty well. We’re in all the professions, business, and politics, but your prototypical Irish American is still a basic police officer or firefighter. The Cavalry that won the West was a third Irish and there are still plenty of us in uniform – especially in the Marine Corps, as a matter of fact. Half the local FBI office lived in my old neighborhood. They had names like Tully, Sullivan, O’Connor and Murphy. My dad was a police officer for half his life and the priests and nuns who educated me were mostly Irish. Do you see what I mean your Majesty? In America we are the forces of order. The glue that holds society together.”



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