Do You Renounce Kennedy and All His Works?

Two weeks ago I ventured into enemy territory: the Harvard Club in Boston. In all the time I’ve lived in New England, I’ve turned down every chance to visit Harvard’s prim, Georgian campus, though I’ve window-shopped in swanky Harvard Square. Out of loyalty to its rival, my alma mater, I’ve steered clear of Harvard, displaying the same mindless tribalism that kept me, back in New York, from setting one Croat foot in a Serbian Orthodox church. In fact, my aversion to Harvard is second only to my deep-seated fear of charismatic liturgy and (of course) of all things Dutch. But this trip was in a good cause, perhaps the best of causes: signing books and selling them.

My new Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins is finally on sale — delayed as it was for months by the publisher’s thrifty decision to outsource its layout and printing to tiny, helpful gnomes from the Brothers Grimm. I had great heaping piles of books at last, along with all my older titles, and that day I got to remember the glamorous side of being an author: schlepping (with spindly writer’s limbs) big boxes of books out of car trunks, down crowded sidewalks, into service entries, and up flights of stairs. By the time I heaved the last box onto the crimson tables in the posh drawing room (lined with portraits of glowering Puritans) that was to host our college event, I was damp, rumpled, and grumpy. I looked and smelt like Jimmy Breslin, and the bar wouldn’t open for hours.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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It’s just as well that I was not the focus of the afternoon, which was Thomas More College‘s President’s Council Symposium on Catholic statesmanship. It featured genuine big names — a former senator, a big-city mayor, an Amherst scholar, and, for the night’s dinner, a real live cardinal (his eminence Raymond Burke). I was piggy-backing on the proceedings to sell a few books during cocktail hour. Still, once I was able to tame my hair and tuck my shirt tails, I settled in for a really informative afternoon.

The first speaker was long-time Boston mayor Ray Flynn, later appointed by President Bill Clinton as his ambassador to the Holy See — pretty much the only plum job that will ever be offered to a pro-life Democrat. As that species vanishes from the wild, it may be that the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See in Rome becomes a kind of nature preserve where pro-life Democrats can live in safety and be observed by naturalists. Sadly, attempts at breeding them in captivity have so far proved inconclusive.

And for good reason: The same decadent modern impetus that leads us to evade the results of our sexual behavior through abortion also drives us to shunt the responsibilities for our other bad decisions onto the government. The issue is no longer (as it was for Pope Leo XIII) whether the state should provide a basic “safety net” to catch the unlucky victims of market vagaries. No, the modern Left wants a comprehensive nanny state that wipes every snotty nose, gives “time outs” for every insensitive remark, and nudges every citizen toward healthy, tolerant behavior productive of the maximum long-term pleasure. (The pro-business, unprincipled segment of the Right wants bailouts for the bad investments of its banking buddies and massive military contracts, so it’s no better.)

Flynn displayed the charm and goodwill that made him the uncrowned king of old-time, ward-heeling politics, of the sort that helped the Irish conquer so many major American cities where once they’d been treated like flotsam the ocean had washed in from a bog. He movingly told his own American success story, how his blue collar dad scrimped and saved to put him through Boston College — back when that (still academically excellent) school was also thoroughly, even catechetically Catholic.

Flynn revived for me the world of my childhood — a neighborhood broken up by its Catholic parishes, full of hard-working, hard-headed people with names like Patrick and Dymphna who’d leave the house at 7 a.m., then return reeking of sweat to collapse into recliner chairs for The 4:30 Movie. They could entrust their kids to the local Catholic school and their votes to the local Democratic Party. Worn down by long shifts at the docks or the factory, or by caring for scads of kids, they had little impulse or impetus for suspicion. These people, my people, were betrayed by most of their leaders, who led their children and their party whoring after strange gods in the ‘70s. Flynn came to speak for them, and he issued a poignant call for a revival of old-style Catholic urban politics: pro-life, paternalist, and tribalist. It is not one likely, I think, to find many takers.


The next speaker, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, gave a ringing, almost point-by-point refutation of John F. Kennedy’s infamous 1960 speech to Houston ministers, in which the aspiring presidential candidate assured Americans that he would at no point allow his private religious beliefs to inform his political conscience. (Blasting Kennedy’s heresy was one of the burdens of Archbishop Charles Chaput’s recent book on Catholic citizenship, Render Unto Caesar.) As Santorum rightly pointed out, Kennedy seized the most extreme secularist reading of American religious neutrality, going far beyond the intentions of even the Deist Thomas Jefferson. Santorum said:

Let me quote from the beginning of Kennedy’s speech: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” The idea of strict or absolute separation of church and state is not and never was the American model. It’s a model used in countries like France and until recently Turkey, but it found little support in America until it was introduced into the public discourse by Justice Hugo Black in the case of Everson v. The Board of Education in 1947. (Black, by the way, was a Catholic-hating former member of the KKK who ironically enough advocated this strict separation doctrine to keep public funds from Catholic schools.)

Indeed, Santorum said, “Kennedy took words written to protect religion from the government and used them to shield the government from religion.” Santorum went on to show how Kennedy’s extremist reading of the American Founding provided political cover for the next generation of Catholic-scented politicians who wished to imprison their “personal faith” behind a “wall of separation,” like a madwoman locked in the attic:

A major political offshoot of Kennedy’s philosophy was best illustrated by Mario Cuomo’s speech at Notre Dame on the 24th anniversary of JFK’s Houston speech, in September 1984. There he espoused his nuanced position on abortion: that, as a result of his religious convictions, he was personally opposed to abortion. But he then applies Kennedy’s thesis and refrains from imposing his values upon others whose views, because the truth is indiscernible, are equally valid. Virtual stampedes of self-proclaimed Catholic politicians followed Cuomo into this seemingly safe harbor and remain there today. This political hand washing made it easier for Catholics to be in public life, but it also made it harder for Catholics to be Catholic in public life.

Cuomo’s safe harbor is nothing more than a camouflage for the faint of heart — a cynical sanctuary for concealing true convictions from the public, and for rationalizing a reluctance to defend them.

In saying that, Santorum boldly and rightly called such “pro-choice” Catholics what they are: liars. When Cuomo said that he believed abortion was the killing of innocent children, but that this belief was so private, so faith-based and essentially eccentric that he would never impose it on the public, he was lying. No human brain could really contain at once such quantities of matter and anti-matter without imploding. If you think it’s killing, you think it’s wrong and ought to be illegal. If you don’t say b), you don’t think a). Thank you, Senator Santorum, for pointing out the dangling nakedness of the emperor.


But the high point of the symposium for me came with the talk by Prof. Hadley Arkes of Amherst College. One of the major voices in the founding of First Things magazine (the late Rev. John Neuhaus took the journal’s name from the title of an Arkes book), Arkes has long been a spokesman for the natural law tradition in American politics. Without going into too much academic detail here, natural law is the moral code any rational person can deduce purely from reason. It is the “law written upon the human heart,” to which we can hold anyone, Christian or pagan. Consequently, in a state without an official church — in a place like America — natural law arguments are the appropriate ones to make to our fellow citizens.

Indeed, as Abraham Lincoln argued regarding slavery, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did concerning segregation — each echoing Augustine and Aquinas — the test of whether a secular law is just is whether it accords with the timeless, universal natural law. It’s ironic that natural law is meant to be the language we use when speaking to non-believers, since it seems that nowadays only Catholics really believe in natural law — or that those who accept the latter end up becoming the former. Like his worthy predecessor Mortimer Adler, Professor Arkes has spent so many lonely years sticking up for natural law that he has found his way into the Church.

We need more Jewish converts (the software runs best on the original hardware), if only to make sure that potentially stuffy talks at the Harvard Club have earthy, bawdy laugh lines, which Professor Arkes provided — causing some Boston Irish cheeks to blush bright pink. But the best part of Arkes’s talk was his analysis of how the Kennedy and Cuomo practice of cross-dressing as Catholics has actually undermined even the “personal beliefs” of ordinary churchgoers. As Arkes said,

“Beliefs” are but imperfect claims of knowledge, and they are set off against the things we truly understand that we know as truths, objective truths. The move to cast Catholic doctrine or religious teaching generally as matters merely of “belief” was a move to identify religion with the domain of the irrational — as though the Church had no truths to impart to the world. It would become a mantra among Catholic politicians — the Kennedys, Bidens, Cuomos, Kerrys — that they would not impose their “personal beliefs” through the laws.

But with that move, two generations of Catholic politicians have not only taught the public a false understanding of morality; they have misinstructed American Catholics by schooling them in a false understanding of Catholicism. The teaching of the Church on abortion has never been grounded in “beliefs,” or in anything merely “personal.” The teaching has been imparted communally, based on reasons that are accessible to all creatures of reason. As Thomas Aquinas explained, the divine law we know through revelation, but the natural law we know through that reason that is natural to human beings.

In other words, Cath-vestites like the Kennedys took a fundamental truth grounded in pure reason — that killing innocent children for one’s convenience is . . . kind of wrong — and made it out to be a personal eccentricity that individual Catholics could take or leave, on the order of a private revelation. (You’re not into Fatima? That’s okay. I’ve always been more convinced by Guadalupe, anyway.)

Not only have the Cath-vestites helped keep abortion legal, they have done something far worse. They have taught ordinary Catholics who didn’t go to Harvard or Boston College to treat basic truths of reason as if they were superstitions, or irrational personal foibles, like my phobia of the Dutch.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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