Catholics can generally be divided into three groups: the “devout,” the “I doubt,” and the “I’m out.”
I fall into that middle category, not exactly down with everything the church teaches but absolutely convinced that none of the alternatives are as attractive. For example, I don’t necessarily believe that artificial birth control is a bad thing (except when I’m forced to pay for someone else’s), but the overriding principles of this church and this faith community define my life in ways that an outsider simply wouldn’t understand.
Even among people who have left the pews, the baptismal waters of infancy seep into the pores of the native Catholic and settle into the unseen places that live beneath the skin and can’t be eroded by disappointment, time or apathy. For most of us, the powerful, visceral pull of the faith is like the earth’s gravity. You can’t ever fully escape it. It keeps the tribe together, even those who fight mightily against the force.
That is why so many of us rejoiced when John F. Kennedy was elected president on Nov. 8, 1960, 53 years, one week and six days ago. The date is recorded in the memories of those who were young then and aged now, and of those who — like me — were not yet born. It is something that was transmitted from our parents to us in utero, that sense of pride that a tribesman had captured the brass ring in a still hostile world.
It is hard to experience at this half-century’s distance what it meant for a Catholic, even one of the “I doubt” variety, to see a handsome young Irish Catholic take the reins of the Free World. We were much less assimilated into the greater society back then, at least from what I’ve been told by older relatives. Women went to Mass with their heads covered daintily in lace, meat was missing from Friday tables, most of our services were still conducted in the beautiful but mysterious language of the Middle Ages. We went to schools where storm-troopers in black robes laid down the law, looked at the “public” kids with suspicion, told our deepest secrets in dark vestibules for easy absolution.
It was much more than just a faith: it was a way of living. So when one of us became the leader of all of us, it meant something more than just a political victory. In fact, many Catholic Republicans like my own grandparents cast their votes for the Catholic Democrat. This was acceptance, even if only by the slimmest of margins. This was respectability. This was Al Smith’s revenge.
I remember watching as Barack Obama became the first self-defined black president of the United States. The looks on some of the black faces captured by the cameras and in still photographs were indescribable. There was a sense of joy that I couldn’t understand, especially since I hadn’t voted for the man. But I knew that even had I sported a “Yes We Can” button and embraced Obama’s candidacy, I still wouldn’t have had that same look on my face. That’s because, in that moment of victory, I was an outsider looking on. Another tribe had grabbed the brass ring, in a still hostile world.
Still, I imagined that it must have been something like what my relatives felt when they saw John F. Kennedy beat the Protestant and thereby give to them, and to all of their brothers and sisters in faith, a place at the table. They understood what Kennedy was up against in 1960, that barely-hidden bigotry that permeated American society against the papists. They forgave him for that speech in Houston to the Protestant ministers that seemed, in some ways, to minimize his religious identity. While the rest of the world heard, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act,” some of them heard “don’t hate me because of how I worship.”
And yet, they understood why he said what he said, and knew that he was saying it for them, too. In fact, these were the words they cherished: “Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal.” The older people who remembered when the Ku Klux Klan came for them, who were shut out of the clubs, who were abandoned by girlfriends because their families disapproved and who lived in the happy ethnic ghettos because they weren’t welcome in the Protestant enclaves heard that and breathed a sigh of gratitude. He understands, they thought, even though he’s rich and smart and powerful. He understands.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago, there was still prejudice against Catholics. But for those 1,036 days of his presidency, it almost didn’t matter.