The Patriarch excerpt: How JFK’s attempt to distance himself from the Catholic Church backfired.

How JFK’s attempt to distance himself from the Catholic Church backfired.

The following is the first of three articles adapted from David Nasaw’s The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, out now from the Penguin Press.

John F. Kennedy easily won re-election to the Senate in November 1958 with nearly three-quarters of the votes cast in his favor. His oversize victory, on the heels of a successful two-year speaking campaign across the country, cemented his position as the front-runner for the presidential nomination. Time magazine devoted its Nov. 24, 1958, cover story to the “Democratic hopefuls.” The cover illustration had Jack Kennedy seated comfortably in the center of the group, with Governors Robert Meyner of New Jersey and Pat Brown of California seated on either side, and Hubert Humphrey, Stuart Symington, and Lyndon Johnson standing behind him. “Jack Kennedy is the early-season Democratic favorite by general agreement. Says an aide to Michigan’s hopeful ‘Soapy’ Williams: ‘If the convention were held today, Kennedy would win on the first ballot, period.’ ” The remaining dangers to the Kennedy candidacy, the article reminded its readers, were the perception that his father was trying to buy the election and, more critically, his “Catholicism [which] could still be held against him when kingmakers are looking for winners at convention time.”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, right, and his brother Robert, left, surround their father, Joseph
Joseph Kennedy in July 1938, surrounded by two of his sons

Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

Five weeks later, on Jan. 1, 1959, James Reston took up this issue in his New York Times column, declaring that “the political implications of nominating a Roman Catholic for the Presidency are now coming increasingly to the fore in the Capital.” Reston predicted, rightly, that the “religious issue” would, as the campaign swung into higher gear, “be debated more and more. And in the process Kennedy is likely to become, not just another candidate, but a symbol and center of political and religious controversy.”

A scenario that Joseph Kennedy had so feared was unfolding before him and there was no way to escape it. Here he was, in 1959, at 70 years of age, after a lifetime spent on the quintessential American journey from outsider to insider, suddenly and unexpectedly thrust back in time. His son had gone to Choate and Harvard, nearly lost his life in military service, written two books, won a Pulitzer Prize, been elected to national office five times, served 13 years in Washington, and emerged as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination—yet he was now identified not as the best-qualified candidate, but as the “Catholic” candidate. And he would have to run his campaign as such.

Father and son and Jack’s senior campaign advisers were agreed that they had no choice but to confront the “Catholic issue” and head it off 18 months before the nominating convention convened. The senator sat for an interview with Fletcher Knebel for a Look magazine article, “Democratic Forecast: A Catholic in 1960,” and defended himself from charges that he was under the control of his church by reminding Knebel that he “had opposed a number of positions taken by Catholic organizations and members of the hierarchy … attended non-Catholic schools, from the elementary grades to Harvard,” and, contrary to the church leadership, “favored aid to Yugoslavia, aid to Communist satellite states and the naming of Dr. James B. Conant [an outspoken critic of parochial schools] as our first ambassador to West Germany.” He then answered the questions that the POAU had asked 15 months earlier. “In a capsule,” Knebel concluded, “his theme is that religion is personal, politics are public, and the twain need never meet and conflict.”

Jack Kennedy’s attempt at candor and at redefining his religion as a private matter backfired badly. His explanations not only did not mollify Protestants who feared that, as a Catholic, he was less of an American, but they incurred the almost universal wrath of Catholic columnists and editorial writers. “I don’t think you can exaggerate the reaction to that Look article, in the Catholic press, particularly,” recalled John Cogley, a former editor of the Catholic magazine Commonweal, who would later became a campaign adviser, “because it was the first public reaction to Kennedy and it was a very negative and a very naïve reaction and, I thought a very politically unsophisticated reaction.”

Why, Catholic critics asked, did Kennedy think it necessary or proper to speak about his faith? Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Mormons weren’t required to answer questions about their religion and their allegiance to the Constitution. Why should Catholics?

“Catholic Censure of Kennedy Rises,” the New York Times reported on March 1. America, a Jesuit journal, accused Sen. Kennedy of pandering to bigots by discounting the influence of his religion on his beliefs and decisions and compartmentalizing his faith as a private matter. Ave Maria, the weekly published by the Holy Cross Fathers at Notre Dame, declared that despite what Kennedy claimed in the interview, a man’s religious faith was never solely a private matter and always had a bearing on his actions in the public sphere. “No man may rightfully act against his conscience. To relegate your conscience to your ‘private life’ is not only unrealistic, but dangerous as well … because it leads to secularism in public life.” Diocesan newspapers across the country assailed him for affirming the extremist Protestant position that the separation between church and state was “absolute.”

Jack was upset, but his father was outraged at Catholic criticism of a Catholic candidate and waited expectantly for his friends in the church hierarchy to defend Jack’s statements. In the end, only Cardinal Cushing, the Archbishop of Boston, issued any such defense. Joseph Kennedy was now livid. He had poured millions of dollars into diocesan projects in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Yet there was no word, public or private, in support of Jack’s position as a Catholic candidate from Cardinal Spellman, or Archbishops O’Boyle, McIntyre, and Stritch, or Father Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame. “I am more than ordinarily bitter about the whole subject,” he wrote his close friend Vatican adviser Enrico Galeazzi on March 30, 1959. “I doubt very much if my relations with the Church and the hierarchy, with the exception of Cardinal Cushing, will ever be the same. I do not care now whether Jack is elected President or not and I have told him so. I certainly will never ask the hierarchy for anything ever again—not that I have ever asked them for much. And I have always been anxious to do everything I could, but that also has ceased. I just believe that they do not deserve to improve their position one single bit.”

Galeazzi tried his best to calm his friend but could not. “I value your suggestions and advice,” Kennedy wrote Galeazzi on April 17, “but I am really more than annoyed or upset—I am downright disgusted! And I do not imagine that anything is ever going to change that. I deplore the pettiness of the Catholic Press and I deplore the weakness of some of the hierarchy for not speaking out, at least in some measure, in Jack’s defense. I have had time to think it over and quiet down—if I were ever going to quiet down—but I know now that I never will.”

All his life, Kennedy had bemoaned the lack of political sophistication among Catholics, comparing it unfavorably with that of the Jews, who had achieved political influence beyond their numbers because they knew how to organize themselves into a powerful lobbying group. Kennedy had imagined—and hoped—that the Catholic community would come together, as the Jews surely would have, in support of Jack’s candidacy because he was a Catholic, because he was the best candidate for the office, and because electing a Catholic as president might help alleviate prejudices that still existed. No matter what his son’s qualifications, the bigoted and biased were going to vote against him because he was a Catholic. To offset those lost votes, Jack needed Catholics to vote for him in even larger numbers than they usually did for Democratic candidates. Kennedy feared that without the support of the church hierarchy, his son would not get those additional votes.

He was now convinced that the leaders of the American church did not want a Catholic president or, at least, they did not want Jack Kennedy to be president. The Look article had, he wrote Galeazzi, provided “an excuse for a lot of stupid bishops and editors to say out loud what they have been saying privately for the last year and a half,” that it would be better if Jack Kennedy did not run for the presidency in 1960.

Kennedy was not the only one who had come to this conclusion. “Some of the hierarchy of the church,” Cardinal Cushing would concede in a 1966 oral history interview, “were not in favor of John F. Kennedy being elected President. They feared that the time had not arrived when a president who was a Catholic could be elected.” The senator, according to John Cogley, “felt that some members of the hierarchy” were against his candidacy “mainly because they were Republicans or because they didn’t like what they thought was the liberal tenor of his thinking. Also, there was, among not only bishops but among priests, as we could tell by the mail that came in, a kind of a resentment sometimes that here he was, a Harvard man, the boy who didn’t go to Catholic schools, being the nation’s number one representative of Catholicism—I think there was a little of that there, too—and also a fear that his style was altogether too secularized for their tastes.” The American church had, until now, spoken unchallenged, with one voice: that of its priests, bishops, and cardinals. The idea that if Kennedy was elected, the most prominent, the most influential, Catholic in the nation would be a layman, not a churchman, was for them a situation to be avoided at all costs. There were political considerations as well. It was widely and accurately believed that a Catholic president would be less likely to openly support federal funding for parochial schools or the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the Vatican.

Opposing or remaining neutral to Jack’s candidacy, as the church leaders now appeared to be doing, was, Kennedy believed, a betrayal not only of him, his son, and his family, but of the millions of American Catholics who stood to benefit from the election of one of their own to the presidency of the United States. For perhaps the first time in his life, certainly for the first time since the death of Joe Jr., Joseph P. Kennedy was forced to reconsider, to re-evaluate, the ties that bound him to his church. “My relationship with the Church will never be the same,” he confessed to Galeazzi in an April 17 letter, “and certainly, never the same with the hierarchy. But that will not make any difference to them, I am sure, and I can assure you that it will not make any difference to me. For the last few years which I have left, I will indulge myself at least in continuing to believe that friends are friends when you need them. Please do not be upset yourself about my attitude. I would not want anything to annoy you.”