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KENNEDY/ Albacete: Catholicism and the American Understanding of Freedom

Fifty years after the assassination of J. F. Kennedy, LORENZO ALBACETE highlights how the issue of Catholicism and the American Understanding of Freedom has yet to be thoroughly discussed

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For me, and for the sadly decreasing number of us who remember November 22, 1963, there was no news last week greater than the golden anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Maybe the better word should be "deeper" rather than "greater", since it is difficult to measure these experiences. In any case, for me these days have brought back the experience of emptiness, hopelessness, exhaustion, and anger that filled my heart fifty years ago.

I came to study and live in Washington, D.C. in the midst of the Kennedy - Nixon campaign for the Presidency, and living in the capital city, I quickly immersed myself in the political clash between what I understood, simply and clearly, as the New vs. the Old. I still consider it this way, as the experiences of those days fifty years ago come back to me. I was 17 years old then and could not even vote yet. I am 72 years old now, and I have never voted with clean enthusiasm since then.

The diminishing number of those who loved JFK unconditionally are not idiots. We have learned about Kennedy's secret lives and harsh politics. We know that he was more like Lancelot than Arthur. Camelot, in the end, is simply true only on Broadway. We know all of those things now, and some of us knew or suspected it back then. (After all, I am Latin, not English.) But still, somehow, it doesn't matter now, and it didn't matter then.

There was one issue, one topic that, to my disappointment now and even then, was not sufficiently covered in the campaign back then, and has not been sufficiently discussed, namely, Catholicism and the American Understanding of Freedom.

Recall Kennedy's speech to the Protestant ministers in Houston on September 12, 1960 when his Catholicism threatened to become a really serious problem for him. (Quite a number of times, especially at bus stops, I was given stridently anti-Catholic propaganda.)

In Houston, Kennedy said that what mattered was not what kind of Church he believed in, but what kind of America he believed in. But I wondered then and now, can the two really be separated? He said then that the Church question pertained only to him and not to the voters. Why not send the ministers back to their Churches?

In the next few paragraphs, Kennedy expanded on what the absolute separation between Church and State implied. But that is not the problem. The problem is whether all the public expressions of faith had to be respected, or only those limited to the area of worship.

This issue is being passionately discussed today as it applies to the health care insurance polemic. Back then Kennedy could have proclaimed Catholic pluralism as he did later: "The nuns vote for me, but the Monsignors vote for Nixon." That alone would have assured him my vote...then, and now as a Kennedy Monsignor.

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