John F. Kennedy was also the first Catholic president—and only the third sitting American president in history—to meet the pope.
Then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s Catholic faith was notoriously controversial during the election of 1960. A liberal intelligentsia criticized Kennedy for the Church’s views on birth control and economics, while old-fashioned fundamentalists attacked the papacy and Catholic worship.
Against this backdrop—while campaigning for office in 1960—John F. Kennedy gave a major speech in Houston, Texas. Before hundreds of Protestant ministers, he outlined his views on his Catholic faith, faith in public office, and the nature of religion in the United States at large.
In the speech, Kennedy famously declared, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” In the same speech he promised to govern according to “what my conscience tells me to be the national interest.” He strongly disavowed any idea that he would be swayed by any religious authority or directed by his religious faith in matters of public policy.
All this makes it much more interesting that Kennedy was also the first Catholic president—and only the third sitting American president in history—to meet the pope.