Aleteia

JFK and Nostalgia for Ethnic Catholicism

Cecil Stoughton
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Kennedy Catholicism, a faith that is more of an ethnicity than a life-changing religion, is one of the last expressions of Counter-Reformation Catholicism – and it’s fading fast.

On Nov. 22, 1963, the seventh grade at Baltimore’s Cathedral School was in gym class when we got word that President Kennedy had been shot. A half-hour later, while we were climbing the stairs back to 7B’s classroom, Sister Dolorine’s voice came over the p.a., announcing that the president was dead. Walking into 7B, my classmates and I saw something that shocked us as much as the news we’d just heard: our tough-love homeroom teacher, a young School Sister of Notre Dame, was sobbing, her faced buried in her arms on her desk. 

The days of public mourning that followed—their solemnity shattered only by the assassination of the assassin on live TV—were bound to leave an impression on a 12-year-old. Indeed, so great was the impression, and so effective the subsequent myth-making, that a half-dozen or so years later, as a college student beginning to feel the effects of late-‘60s skepticism, I was nonetheless offended when it was first reported that the late president had been a “fearsome girler” (as Ben Bradlee’s father put it).

Still, the magnetic appeal of the man (or the myth, or both) was such that when I first went to Dallas, I was inexorably drawn to the site of the assassination, the Texas School Book Depository and nearby Dealey Plaza. Standing at the window from which the shots that changed American history were fired, I quickly decided that a trained marksman could have easily done, by himself, what the Warren Commission concluded he had done.  

I remain grateful to John F. Kennedy for inspiring the conviction that public life ought to accommodate both idealism (without illusions, as JFK described his own approach) and elegance. Fifty years after his death, however, I fear that much of the Kennedy mythos is an obstacle to the flowering of Catholic witness in America—and indeed to a proper understanding of modern American history.

The myth of Camelot, for example, misses the truth about the assassination: that John F. Kennedy was a casualty of the Cold War, murdered by a dedicated communist. “Camelot” also demeaned the liberal anti-communist internationalism that Kennedy embodied; that deprecation eventually led Kennedy’s party into the wilderness of neo-isolationist irresponsibility from which it has yet to emerge. 

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