On Sept. 12, 1960, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy delivered a speech to Protestant ministers in Houston that is regarded as a turning point not just in that year's election but in the decline of anti-Catholicism in the United States. "I believe," Kennedy said, "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."
Last week, a prominent Roman Catholic prelate, also addressing a Protestant audience in Houston, said that Kennedy's speech was "sincere, compelling, articulate -- and wrong." Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, a leader of the church's conservative wing, complained that Kennedy had "profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics but of all religious believers in America's public life. . . . Today, half a century later, we're paying for the damage." The archbishop chided contemporary Catholic politicians for following Kennedy's lead in living their faith "as if it were a private idiosyncrasy -- the kind that they'll never allow to become a public nuisance."
Chaput isn't alone in faulting Kennedy for seeming to imply that a political leader's faith has no connection to his public life. But Kennedy's main intention was to assure Protestants suspicious of Catholicism that he would make decisions "in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates."
The tension Kennedy was describing may sound familiar. It figures in the continuing controversy over whether Catholic politicians must embrace the church's opposition to abortion and whether a candidate who fails to do so should be denied Holy Communion or drummed out of office by Catholic voters. It is telling that Chaput described abortion as the "foundational human rights issue of our lifetime," and it's no coincidence that in 2008, he suggested that presidential candidate Joe Biden, a Catholic who is an abortion rights advocate, shouldn't approach the Communion rail.
Catholic bishops, like other religious leaders, have every right to exhort their co-religionists in public office to live by their faith. And it's not for us to tell church leaders when or to whom they should administer their sacraments. But when they condition full participation in the church on a politician's position on abortion, they put him or her in a difficult bind. Publicly forcing politicians to choose between their faith and their political judgment creates the very impression that Kennedy sought to avoid, with positive consequences for pluralism and religious tolerance. As we see it, Kennedy's position is still the correct one.