End Notes: I’m Catholic—But Don’t Worry

Those of us old enough to have voted for John Kennedy recall how exciting it was to watch the returns come in—and come in and come in. It was not until the following morning that his election as president was assured. And then the exhilarating realization set in: There would be a Catholic in the White House. The president of the United States would worship as we do and have the same mental furniture as other Catholics.

The year 1960 took the sting out of the WASP. Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah had given an unromanticized view of the struggle between the entrenched Yankees and the immigrant Irish in Boston. (The main character was said to owe something to John Kennedy’s grandfather, Honey Fitz.)

The thousand days of the Kennedy presidency were not marked by triumph. Despite reversals, the constant opposition by Congress, the tragic way in which he sought to punish Castro— the Bay of Pigs—and the far larger mistake of Vietnam, which his fellow Democrats succeeded in transmuting into “Nixon’s War,” the young president (only 43 when he was elected) was treated gently by a press that would gradually become his cheering section. It was Kennedy’s glamour that won them, that and other things we were not to learn about until much later. It is said that no man is a hero to his valet. But Kennedy was a hero to valets who knew what a womanizer he was. The press, sycophantic historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., William Manchester, and others, gilded the legend after Kennedy’s assassination until his brief years in the White House were made to seem almost mythical. Indeed, a veritable Camelot.

Only one who had believed otherwise could be truly flattened by the revelations about Kennedy the man. It is difficult to discern any influence of his faith on his private life, let alone his public life. In Seymour Hirsch’s book, The Dark Side of Camelot, all illusions were swept away. Neither will it do to say that every politician disappoints. Kennedy was a Catholic. Nominally. He might have been the model of the Catholic politician. Instead he became the model for a kind of Catholic grown too numerous in recent decades.

 

Neither John Kennedy’s education nor friends nor interests were such as to give him a Catholic mentality. So what was he? Thanks to his father’s vindictive ambition, he was the quintessential upwardly mobile Catholic. Kennedys saw WASPS as rivals, but their strategy was to become WASPS themselves. Kennedy foresaw no possible conflict with his faith. It simply wasn’t a factor in his life. And now it would be Bobby Kennedy’s turn.

After his brother’s assassination, Bobby regarded Lyndon Johnson as a usurper, rather than the constitutionally correct successor of the slain president. Bobby left the administration and was elected senator from New York, from which he prepared to launch a drive for the presidency. One person who viewed this prospect mordantly was Eugene McCarthy, the senator from Minnesota, who had seen his hope of being the first Catholic president dashed by John Kennedy and now saw the little brother in his path. When Bobby was assassinated, Vice President Hubert Humphrey became the candidate. In the election, the Democrats turned over all their troubles—especially the war in Vietnam—to Richard Nixon, a man they had loathed since he blew the whistle on Alger Hiss.

Ronald Steel’s new book on Bobby, In Love With Night, is chiefly concerned with showing that the younger brother was not as liberal as people thought, but then neither was the older brother. Both were sons of their father, after all. Whether the Kennedy brothers were liberal or conservative is not something one would fret too much about. It is their total secularization that is striking. They privatized their faith before any court suggested they should. Nor does it seem to have been a conscious, dramatic deed, however private. Being Catholic seems to have meant a plus or minus with the electorate and not much else.

Fr. Andrew Greeley sometimes seems to suggest that we are all Kennedy Catholics now. All those beliefs and practices are negotiable, nothing that should bring us into collision with our fellow Americans. Now we divorce and abort and misbehave like everyone else—or so we are told. Sometimes I feel like Sen. Grassley of Iowa who, when told on one of the ineffable talk shows that everyone lies about sex, was dumbfounded. “I don’t!” he cried, thereby becoming the butt of jokes. He, it was laughingly said, had nothing to lie about.

How sophisticated we’ve become. But, of course, the laugh is on us.

Ralph McInerny

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Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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