Is There Still a "Catholic Question" in America? Reflections on John F. Kennedy's Speech to the Houston Ministerial Association

By McConnell, Michael W. | Notre Dame Law Review, August 2011 | Go to article overview

Is There Still a "Catholic Question" in America? Reflections on John F. Kennedy's Speech to the Houston Ministerial Association


McConnell, Michael W., Notre Dame Law Review


[B]ecause I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured--perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again--not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me--but what kind of America I believe in.

John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1960 (1)

Fifty years ago, Senator John F. Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts and a lifelong Roman Catholic, accepted an invitation from the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant, predominantly Southern Baptist clergymen, to address what was then called "the Catholic Question" in American politics: could an adherent to the Roman Catholic religion be elected president of the United States?

At a distance of fifty years, the very question may seem antiquated and distasteful--a whiff of a bigotry now overcome, not least as a result of Kennedy's well chosen words, as well as his exemplary performance as the first Catholic president of the United States. Today, some 161 members of Congress are Catholics--30.1% of the federal legislature--despite an adult American population that is only 23.9% Catholic. (2) Catholics are even more heavily represented among U.S. governors. Twenty-one governors, or forty-two percent of the total, are Catholics. (3) Evidently, Americans trust Catholics to be their representatives and executives even more than they do most other religions. Most remarkably of all, fully two-thirds of the U.S. Supreme Court justices are Catholics, while not a single justice is a member of a Protestant denomination. (4) Vice President Joe Biden is a Catholic. (5) So are former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (6) and the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry. (7)

The Catholicism of these leaders has not been an issue, at least not in the way it was an issue for John F. Kennedy, and before him for Al Smith, the Democratic party's candidate for President in 1928. (8) Then, the fear was that Catholic officeholders might be too obedient to the teachings of their Church. (9) Today, to the extent the Catholicism of a candidate is even noticed, it is more likely that people wonder how these public figures can square their professed Catholicism with their evident lack of agreement with much that the Church teaches. (10) Pelosi, Biden, and Kerry, for example, are ardent supporters of the freedom to have an abortion, which the Church regards as an evil. (11)

Of course, a lot has changed since 1960. The nation has changed. Americans today are more religiously diverse (12) and more tolerant at least in some ways. (13) The great religious divide has shifted from Protestant/Catholic to secular/religious. (14) Today there may be more tension between more and less observant or orthodox believers within religious denominations than there is between those denominations.

Catholic doctrine has changed. Just a few years after Kennedy gave his speech, the great council at Vatican II largely adopted American notions of religious freedom and church-state separation, (15) thus putting to rest one of the most vexing issues facing Catholic candidates like Kennedy.

And Catholic Americans have changed. For the worse as well as for the better, Catholics have come to resemble Protestants. When Kennedy spoke, Catholics attended church more often than Protestants did. (16) Now those rates are about the same. (17) And Catholics now pay about as much attention to church teachings as Protestants do. Recent polls by the Pew Research Center have shown that Catholic attitudes toward such issues as abortion and homosexuality differ hardly at all from the general population. (18) In fact, according to Gallup polls, today conservative and evangelical Protestants are more likely to agree with many Catholic teachings than Catholics are. (19) So we are in a different world than the one facing John F. …

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