An archbishop faces ghost of JFK

In the beginning, there was candidate John F. Kennedy, who told an assembly of Protestant ministers not to worry about his Catholicism because, "I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair." In that influential 1960 address, Kennedy boldly proclaimed: "I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.

"Whatever issue may come before me as president -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision in accordance ... with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise."

And so it came to pass that -- politically speaking -- JFK begat the Kennedy dynasty, which begat Mario Cuomo, who begat Geraldine Ferraro, who begat Joseph Biden, who begat Rudy Giuliani, who begat John Kerry, who begat Arnold Schwarzenegger, who begat Nancy Pelosi and so forth and so on.

Looking back, it's clear that Kennedy's high-risk visit to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association changed Catholic political life. That's why one of America's most outspoken Catholic leaders recently seized an opportunity to deliver a very different message to another Protestant audience in Houston.

Kennedy's speech was "sincere, compelling, articulate -- and wrong," claimed Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, at a Houston Baptist University forum on faith and public life. "His Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America's public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we're paying for the damage."

The key, argued the archbishop, is that Kennedy did more than endorse the separation of church and state. He did more than plead for religious tolerance in the public square, after generations of tensions between Catholics and Protestants.

Ultimately, that Kennedy did was pledge to separate his faith from his personal conscience, thus building a high wall down the center of his own heart, mind and soul. How is it possible for Christians to do this, Chaput asked, when dealing with profoundly moral issues such as health care, immigration, abortion, poverty, education, religious liberty, family life, sexual identity and matters of war and peace?

"Real Christian faith is always personal," he said, "but it's never private."

Political and religious leaders have been debating the meaning of Kennedy's words ever since he spoke them. This was especially true during the 2008 presidential race when critics dissected the beliefs of several candidates who openly discussed their religious beliefs -- such as Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin and, of course, the future president, Barack Obama.

During a Fordham University forum on "The Kennedy Moment," political theorist William Galston of the Brookings Institution said that the key to the 1960 address was the candidate's bold insistence that his private spiritual views should not even be discussed because they "do not influence his views on public matters."

Kennedy also endorsed a "separation between democracy and God," noted Galston, former senior domestic policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. In fact, he used the word "God" only once, in a reference to the presidential oath of office.

This speech "could have been given by a nonbeliever. Indeed -- deep breath -- I rather suspect it was," said Galston. "At the very least, there is no indication that JFK regarded the church as having any rightful authority over his public conduct."

For Chaput, it's impossible to concede that the teachings of the Catholic faith should have nothing to do with the public lives, vocations and actions of individuals who continue to call themselves faithful Catholics.

Nevertheless, 50 years after Kennedy's speech in Houston "we have more Catholics in national public office than ever before. But I wonder if we've ever had fewer of them who can coherently explain how their faith informs their work or who even feel obligated to try," said the archbishop.

"At least one of the reasons for it is this: Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience. Too many live their faith as if it were a private idiosyncrasy, the kind that they'll never allow to become a public nuisance. And too many just don't really believe. Maybe it's different in Protestant circles. But I hope you'll forgive me if I say, 'I doubt it.' "

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, pro-lifer

There is nothing particularly newsworthy about a coalition of pro-lifers releasing a public manifesto that criticizes politicos who support abortion rights. Nevertheless, a full-page advertisement in the New York Times during the 1992 Democratic National Convention raised eyebrows because a few prominent Democrats endorsed "A New American Compact: Caring about Women, Caring for the Unborn."

One name in particular jumped out in this list -- Kennedy.

"The advocates of abortion on demand falsely assume two things: that women must suffer if the lives of unborn children are legally protected; and that women can only attain equality by having the legal option of destroying their innocent offspring in the womb," proclaimed ad's lengthy and detailed text.

"We propose a new understanding, one that does not pit mother against child. To establish justice and to promote the general welfare, America does not need the abortion license. What America needs are policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers AND their children, both before AND after birth."

Near the end, the statement added: "We can choose to reaffirm our respect for human life. We can choose to extend once again the mantle of protection to all members of the human family, including the unborn."

It really wasn't a surprise that Eunice Kennedy Shriver -- who died on Aug. 11, after a series of strokes -- was among those who signed the document, along with her husband Sargent Shriver, the 1972 Democratic nominee for vice president.

Yes, she was the sister of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy, and Sen. Edward Kennedy and part of a family dynasty that changed how Americans view progressive politics and Catholicism.

But Eunice Shriver also attended convent schools, considered becoming a nun and remained a daily-Mass Catholic throughout her life, while teaching the Rosary prayers to her five children and 19 grandchildren. She was a public supporter of Democrats for Life, Feminists for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports pro-life women who seek public office.

"She was pious, I think, a very, very pious woman," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., stating the obvious during a six-hour public wake and Mass for his aunt at Our Lady of Victory Church on Cape Cod.

An official tribute went further while connecting her faith with the issue that dominated her public life.

"Inspired by her love of God, her devotion to her family, and her relentless belief in the dignity and worth of every human life, she worked without ceasing," said the family's public statement. "She was a living prayer. ... She set out to change the world and to change us, and she did that and more. She founded the movement that became Special Olympics, the largest movement for acceptance and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities in the history of the world. Her work transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people across the globe, and they in turn are her living legacy."

The mainstream obituaries and media tributes that followed her death also connected Shriver's work with the poignant life of her older sister Rosemary Kennedy, who was mentally disabled. In a historic 1962 article for the Saturday Evening Post, Eunice yanked one of Camelot's most tragic secrets into the open -- under the stark headline, "Hope for Retarded Children." In the decades that followed, she worked tirelessly to pull Rosemary into the family circle.

Nevertheless, elite journalists failed to connect the dots between Shriver's fierce activism on behalf of children facing disabilities and her commitment to defending the lives of the unborn, including babies with Down syndrome and other genetic flaws.

For Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sanctity of life was a Catholic issue, a political issue and an intensely personal issue.

"She was preeminently pro-life, against abortion and there to protect and underscore the dignity of every person. This, of course, manifested itself in her love for children with disabilities," noted Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, in a reflection posted online.

"While Eunice's works were remarkable, I don't want to lose sight of the fact that her Catholic faith and education was a very important part of what motivated her and helped her to interpret reality. ... It was certainly the soil out of which grew her passion and dedication to the less fortunate and those who are challenged by disabilities and mental retardation."

Romney, JFK and the God question

The atmosphere was tense as the handsome presidential candidate from Massachusetts rose to address an audience packed with Protestant conservatives that he knew had serious doubts about the state of his soul.

We're not talking about Mitt Romney's recent trip to Virginia Beach to deliver the commencement address at Regent University. For political insiders, the only controversy in that speech was when he said, "I want to offer my sincere thanks to Dr. Pat Robertson for extending me the honor of addressing you today."

No, the daring campaign address that politicos are still discussing was the one John F. Kennedy delivered in 1960 to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, the speech in which he erected a high wall of separation between his public political life and his private Catholic faith.

"I believe in an America," said Kennedy, "that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials -- and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

"For, while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew -- or a Quaker -- or a Unitarian -- or a Baptist."

Or a Mormon? That's the question facing legions of evangelicals as they gird their loins for battle in the Bible Belt political primaries. They are waiting to see if Romney will publicly address their concerns about his deep Mormon faith.

That didn't happen at Regent, where the candidate stuck to marriage, parenting, public service and positive thinking. There was one clear religious reference, when he referred to the April 16 shootings at Virginia Tech.

"We're shocked by the evil of the Virginia Tech shooting," said Romney. "I opened my Bible shortly after I heard of the tragedy. Only a few verses, it seems, after the Fall, we read that Adam and Eve's oldest son killed his younger brother. From the beginning, there has been evil in the world."

Regent was a signpost in Romney's quest to calm evangelical fears, in part because the campus contains the headquarters of Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network -- which addresses Mormonism in its "How Do I Recognize a Cult?" website page. It states, for example, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a "prosperous, growing organization that has produced many people of exemplary character. But when it comes to spiritual matters, the Mormons are far from the truth."

That passage is mild compared to the incendiary language common among many Christian conservatives. Bill Keller of, for example, bluntly states that the teachings of the "Mormon cult are doctrinally and theologically in complete opposition to the Absolute Truth of God's Word. There is no common ground. If Mormonism is true, then the Christian faith is a complete lie."

Mormons do believe that the Old and New Testaments -- as read by traditional Christians -- are packed with errors and that Mormonism is the one true faith. Mormons believe that their president is a living prophet and that faithful mortals, in the next life, can achieve godhood. Thus, Mormons reject or redefine the Trinity, teaching that this world's Father God has both a literal body and a literal wife.

These are not the issues that obsess typical voters, but they are important to many Christian leaders who wield great influence in the public square. The Vatican, for example, refuses to recognize the validity of Mormon baptisms.

"There are valid questions that Romney will have to answer," said veteran religion writer Richard Ostling, co-author of "Mormon America: The Power and the Promise."

"People need to know, 'Is this man going to take orders from Salt Lake City? Are there elements of Mormon theology that will affect public policy?' ... But before he gets to those questions, Romney may have to say, 'We have different doctrines. We have different scriptures. ... We even have different concepts of God.' He has to know that he can't just say, 'We all have the same faith.' That is not going to work."