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James T. KeaneMay 07, 2024
John Cogley (Wikimedia Commons)

Historians and political scientists often cite John F. Kennedy’s famous televised address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960, as the turning point in that year’s presidential election—as well as a signal moment in American Catholic history. In that address, Kennedy put to rest the notion that a papist couldn’t possibly be president. “Contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President,” Kennedy told the 300 Protestant ministers in attendance. “I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Depending on whom you ask, the speech was either a great step forward for American Catholics or the inauspicious beginning of the separation of religion from public life. Also depending on whom you ask, the speech was the brainchild of speechwriter Ted Sorenson, or Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray (whom Garry Wills later called the speech’s “doctrinal father”), or J.F.K. himself or the Freemasons.

This isn’t historically accurate or all that fair. Why do the Jesuits and the Freemasons always get the credit for nefarious plots? Besides, the real mastermind behind that speech was a lay Catholic who had previously been the executive editor of Commonweal: John Cogley.

Born in Chicago in 1916, John Cogley was briefly a student at the local Servite minor seminary before attending Loyola University Chicago. After college, he joined the Catholic Worker and edited their Chicago newspaper for four years. After three years in the Air Force during World War II, he became a founding editor of Today, a magazine for Catholic students. Cogley then briefly moved to Switzerland to study theology in Fribourg. In 1949, he became the executive editor of Commonweal, a position he held until 1954. He continued to write a column for Commonweal for a decade more.

In 1954, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Nassau County, N.Y., as the Democratic candidate in New York’s 3rd Congressional District. (If you’re wondering why that district sounds familiar, it was, until recently, represented by George Santos.) Cogley then moved to the Fund for the Republic (later the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions) in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he directed a study on blacklisting in the entertainment industry, published in 1956, that got him hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C.

Cogley was still working at the Fund in 1960 when he was contacted by the Kennedy campaign. Kennedy, he was told, had read a recent article by Cogley in Commonweal that defended Kennedy’s contention that an officeholder’s first obligation was to his oath of office, not his religious convictions—and that he or she should resign if forced to “try to play it both ways.”

Cogley was asked to help draft Kennedy’s speech to the Houston ministers. He spent a month in Washington, D.C., and then headed down to Houston with the Kennedy campaign, where he remembers being asked to imagine what sort of thorny questions might be asked of Kennedy in the aftermath. The speech, Cogley remembered later, “was not taken nearly as seriously as later it seemed to be. It was just to be one more speech along the campaign route, and I don’t think anybody put tremendous emphasis on it.”

Kennedy seemed grateful for both practical and theological advice. “It is hard for a Harvard man to answer questions in theology,” Kennedy quipped to Cogley before the speech. “My answers tonight will probably cause heartburn at Fordham and BC.” Indeed, America’s editors weren’t fans: “We were somewhat taken aback by the unvarnished statement that ‘nothing takes precedence over one’s oath.’ Mr. Kennedy doesn’t really believe that. No religious man, be he Catholic, Protestant, or Jew, holds such an opinion.”

Whatever one’s opinion of Kennedy’s motives, the speech seemed to banish the ghosts of Al Smith and other Catholic candidates for high office. Kennedy went on to defeat Richard Nixon two months later, becoming the nation’s first Catholic president.

Two years later, the beginning of the Second Vatican Council brought Cogley and a number of other lay journalists to the forefront of Catholic thought in the United States, and he reported on the council for Religion News Service and other outlets. After the council ended, Cogley became the “religious news editor” at The New York Times in 1965, a position he held until 1967, when he returned to Santa Barbara. In 1968, he served as an unofficial advisor to Eugene J. McCarthy during the latter’s presidential run.

Cogley contributed to America many times over the years, starting in 1946. Along with many essays on theology and church politics, he wrote a series of “Poems on Postcards” in 1963 that dealt with church issues in a whimsical way. As poems, they’re not great. As cocktail party fodder, they’re spot-on. Note the wise observation that concludes this 1963 submission, “Discovery,” a line stolen over the years by many another wearer of the motley:

And on literary matters The plural patterns hold
The Jesuit qua reader
Fits no common mold
There are Jesuits left and Jesuits right
A pro and a con for most any fight
So wherever you stand, you stand not alone:
Every little movement has a Jebbie of its own.

In 1962, Cogley described in America his idea for a book about American Catholicism. The problem, he noted, was that there was just too much to cover:

Some day you would like to write a book about Catholicism in America as you have known it. You keep putting it off, and the relentless years keep passing. The book will probably never be written. But as time goes by, experience broadens, understanding is enriched, complexity becomes more evident. The result is that this year's unwritten book is better than last year's, and next year's promises to be the best yet. Thinking about it, though, is like paging through an album of yellowed snapshots, watching yourself age while the perennial youth of the Church becomes ever more verdant.

The project “will have to be two or three books. If it can be put off until the year after next, or the one after that, it might be monumental,” he wryly concluded. In 1973, Cogley accomplished his goal, publishing Catholic America, a popular history of the Catholic church in the United States.

Later that year, Cogley officially joined the Episcopal Church, where he was later ordained a deacon. In his 1976 memoir, A Canterbury Tale, Cogley noted that a significant factor in his decision was the 1968 promulgation of “Humanae Vitae,” Paul VI’s encyclical on birth control. “It was now clear to me that by the time of Humanae vitae I no longer accepted the papal claim to infallibility,” he wrote. “After 1968 and that fatal encyclical, I began to look more to the Episcopal Church.”

Cogley died in 1976 in Santa Barbara, Calif., at the age of 60, survived by his wife Theodora and six children. Cogley’s writing “interpreted one of the most turbulent periods in American religious history,” read his obituary in The New York Times, which also called him “the most prominent American Roman Catholic journalist of his generation.”

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Calling the Colors,” by Angela Townsend. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, news from the Catholic Book Club: We have a new selection! We are reading Norwegian novelist and 2023 Nobel Prize winner Jon Fosse’s multi-volume work Septology. Click here to buy the book, and click here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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