In 1961 Robert Frost stammered through part of a poem he couldn’t quite read on a snowy and bitterly cold Washington day.
The occasion was the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic to be elected president of the United States. Choosing Frost, then in his eighties, to lend dignity to a ceremony so prosaic it can only be compared to buying stamps, was a stroke of genius–a tribute to Kennedy’s New England roots and the liberal protestant tradition that went with it. Even Presbyterian schoolteachers in Raleigh loved his poetry.
Yes, the new guy was Catholic, the thinking went, but he was also a product of New England’s finest Yankee institutions, Choate and Harvard. Some of that must have had a civilizing effect, though few south of Maryland or west of Pennsylvania had heard of Choate and what they knew of Harvard they didn’t like much. They still don’t.
In that era, when there was still a “Catholic vote,” there was also little disagreement between Catholics and protestants over issues like abortion (illegal), contraception (risky, no pill), and divorce (heinous for Catholics but not recommended for others with political designs, either).
The fear of protestants was not that Catholics would impose a socially conservative agenda on the country but that America would become a colony of Rome and that the pope would rule in absentia. Kennedy put a hole in that senseless idea in a famous speech in 1960 when he said,
I believe in an America 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.
How things have changed. The Catholic church is now as loud and politically obtrusive as Kennedy required it not to be to win an election. Though Catholics and protestants come out nearly even in surveys concerning prevalence of “pre-marital” sex (I know: it sounds quaint, doesn’t it?), birth control and even the incidence of abortion in cases of unintended pregnancy (Protestants account for 37.4% of all abortions in the U.S.; Catholic women for 31.3%, Jewish women for 1.3%, and women with no religious affiliation, 23,7%), the Catholic church has decided to make abortion its cause celebre in its battle for social and moral relevance.
HE Gospel of Life -obsession of the official Church is largely based on traditional Catholic moral teaching as expounded by the bewildering and now blessed John Paul II. Along with its pre-modern understanding of human sexuality, it carries with its sanctity- of -life prescription a European- friendly condemnation of capital punishment and anti-war bias, as well as a totally incoherent ban on contraception as a way of reducing the instances of unwanted pregnancy. –Call it the Mother Theresa Ultimatum.
The contraception phobia, which dates back to Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (and the birth-control hysteria of the 1960’s) had nothing to do with a consistent sexual “moral theory” but with a theory of human nature formulated by St Augustine in the fifth century, based on the notion that pleasure was never intended by God as a part of human good. The equation between pleasure and sin is so firmly entrenched in Catholic psychology that it has to be seen as programmatic orthodox Catholic moral theology: a celibate priesthood, the veiling of women religious (nuns), a virgin birth, an immaculate conception, and a sexless apostolic community are just the doctrinal excrescences of an institutionalized fear of the flesh.
Curiously, alongside this partially disguised abhorrence of fleshly fulfillment the Catholic church still retains its admiration for the productivity of marriage and opposition to divorce. But when you consider that Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Andrew Cuomo, to name only prominent political figures, are forbidden (and with variable consistency have accepted that they are forbidden) to receive the Church’s most revered sacrament, while ghoulish mock-Catholics like Rick Santorum and parody-Catholic, spouse-abandoning, thrice married Newt Gingrich get the Church’s seal of approval for their extreme “pro-life” commitments, it is high time for The Catholic Church to declare itself a colony of the Tea Party.
As if this isn’t bad enough, Santorum has decided to break ranks with the Kennedy legacy by repudiating JFK’s robust appeal to the First Amendment as the guaranty that religion plays no role in the affairs of state. Calling the 1960 speech by Kennedy a “great mistake,” and a “radical statement that did much damage,” he said in a recent speech in Newton, Massachusetts:
We’re seeing how Catholic politicians, following the first Catholic president, have followed his lead, and have divorced faith not just from the public square, but from their own decision-making process. Jefferson is spinning in his grave.
Which of course is true. At the ignorance of Rick Santorum. Rob Boston says mildly and to the point,
Look, it’s bad enough that you run around talking trash about Kennedy, but adding Jefferson to your Festival of Ignorance is just too much. Leave the man out of it. You apparently know nothing about him. Jefferson spent his entire life opposing government-mandated religion and fought every member of the clergy who supported that foul idea. Here’s a famous example: During the election of 1800, presidential candidate Jefferson knew that many New England preachers were yearning to win favoritism for their faith from the federal government. He also knew that they hated him because they realized he would never let that happen. That’s why they spread wild tales about Jefferson being a libertine who, if elected, would burn Bibles.
The social and moral “conservatism” of the Republican field is primarily an appeal to the ignorance of the American people. It’s the ugliest kind of alliance between the Church’s need to remain relevant by appealing to uteral issues and the political need of soulless office-grubbers to appear moral. Both are appeals to ignorance, to the Faithful, on the one side, who are often willing to refer moral responsibility to higher authorities and to “The American People” (often described virtuously as “the basic goodness and decency” of the American people) on the other, who can usually be counted upon to follow their gut and are often shocked slack-jawed when their gut takes them in the wrong direction as it did in the 2010 congressional runnings. It’s a little hard to swallow the opinion-polls of a nation who votes ignoramuses into office and then loses all respect for them once they get to their desk, isn’t it?
HAT is even more depressing is that the ignorance of a Rick Santorum is probably real rather than Machiavellian. He is as dumb about the history of his Church as he is about the history of his nation. And the machinations of the Catholic church–his church–while Machiavellian, are tragically self-centered and manifestly wicked.
Ever since the Jewish priestly class invented the story of cloddish Adam and compliant Eve, the hierarchy has known how to use an idiot to make a point: Do what you’re told. Don’t ask too many questions. Believe us: you don’t want the responsibility of knowing the big picture. Given those marching orders, it doesn’t matter what Jefferson really said or thought. It’s enough that there is an interpretation of him as a believing Christian who would spout, basically, the same things the Tea Party is saying if he were around today. There is no difference between history and delusion in Rick Santorum’s world.
Kennedy ended the speech that Santorum calls a big mistake with the following:
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, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
In a scant fifty years, how have we come so far from regarding this kind of rhetoric as fundamental, rational and wise to seeing it as radically mistaken? And how much guilt does the Church bear for encouraging this treason against the first principles of American democracy by egging on the clods?