Dedicated to JFK

November 05 2003 | by

IN HEMEL Hempstead, in Westminster diocese, Great Britain, there is a fine Catholic school catering for children of all abilities, and with a roll of 1,100 students. Its relevance to this anniversary reflection is its name and its dedication. It is the John F. Kennedy RC School. Apparently it is the only Catholic school in England and Wales that now bears his name.
The headlines collaged here are taken from the British daily papers of Saturday 23 November 1963 which I collected on that day and have kept. John Kennedy was the fourth US president to be assassinated; Lincoln in 1865, Garfield in 1881 and McKinley in 1901; the sharers in his grim destiny. In a thousand words, even the thousand days of JFK’s presidency cannot be assessed, still less his whole life, but I offer a milestone biography in a separate panel. I just want to examine one aspect of his legacy from the standpoint of Catholic institutions.

Catholic dilemma

It was easier to keep secrets 40 years ago and many facts about John Kennedy’s health and personal life were successfully kept from the public up to his death and for years afterwards. It had been possible to keep President Roosevelt’s profound physical incapacity a secret and the less chronic but persistent physical illnesses that dogged Jack Kennedy were glossed over by family and entourage, to the world’s net gain it must be said.
A problem for Catholics is what to make of the considerable sexual disorder in Kennedy’s life, against the background of his Catholicism, and the outward appearance of a normal and well-ordered family life. He was married to one of the world’s great beauties, Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, also a Catholic. She bore him two sons and two daughters. Sadly, one daughter was stillborn and their second son died after two days, just before the assassination. It is clear that Jackie knew what Jack was like before she married him. He gave her plenty of evidence, even during their courtship, that he was not going to change. But she loved him, that is clear, reflected coolly and went forward to the altar with him.
JFK would certainly not have secured the Democratic nomination without assuring the political world that his religion would not get in the way of his politics. Harry Truman had opposed Kennedy’s candidacy, masking his opposition to his religion by saying that he lacked experience. Kennedy said, famously, “I am not a Catholic candidate for President. I’m the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens to be a Catholic.” His faith was only nominal. But I remember the fanciful ideas current among some of us Catholics in the heady first days of his presidency. The charismatic John XXIII was Pope. Now a Catholic was the world’s most powerful secular leader. Would some new sort of Holy Roman Empire emerge? Such ideas would have alarmed Protestants. That would have been their nightmare as Islamic fundamentalism is the non-Muslim world’s nightmare today.

In Kennedy’s name

Many streets, schools and other institutions in the USA and around the world, including New York’s main airport, have been named after JFK, but does the issue of altering the dedication arise in the case of Catholic institutions in the light of what has become known about the assassinated President’s personal life? I asked Michael Foskett, assistant head teacher at that Hertfordshire school, what the feeling was in his school community. Mr Foskett has been at the school for 29 years and handles its PR. He told me that while pupils are sometimes set assignments bearing on the President, the dedication does not come up, it is not an issue. He wondered if it might be talked about now, with this anniversary upon them.
The deeper question is this: do our sins undermine our good works or our artistic endeavours? Or do they literally cover our sins in the sight of God? Grace does not work net. It is absolute, unconditional. Whilst we may legitimately weigh and assess the lives and works of great men and women, we may never take a single step towards judging anybody in terms of the Last Things. I do not think we should put away, deny, or destroy any man’s works because of his or her sins or crimes, however atrocious. I would feel it an injustice if my own modest writings or accomplishments were discounted because of my moral shortcomings. I think of Eric Gill, revealed as a child abuser. Are his Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral, his typography and other works diminished and invalidated?
On the other hand  I do not believe that we can print licences on earth for artists, great beauties, or people in power, that absolve them from the commandments of God. We cannot give them (or ourselves) tickets, on account of works, faces or fortunes that will be valid at the Gates of Heaven. Presumption is the opposite sin to judgement.
But there were long hard hours in the waters of the Pacific in August 1943 when a young officer’s crewmen rejoiced mightily at his courage and leadership. There were long hard hours in October 1962 when the author of Profiles in Courage had his own nerves and strength and courage tested again to breaking point. Working with Khrushchev, a dreadful persecutor of our Church about whom the same sorts of questions arise, John Kennedy, with all his faults, had the stamina to hold steady and get it right for all of us, albeit with a vital contribution, we have lately learnt, from a Soviet submarine commander. An incalculable nuclear exchange was averted.
John Kennedy made our world feel young, he gave it hope and a new heart. His resolve delivered the Moon to man “in this decade” as he said. And if he could not deliver the Earth, he did, upon a day, help preserve it. I hope and believe that the John F Kennedy RC School, and the other institutions and enterprises around the world that bear his name, will retain their dedications.


Updated on October 06 2016