"The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life."
-John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Speech, January 20, 1961
With these words, John F. Kennedy encapsulated the dichotomy of the modern age: we have mastered the science necessary both to save us and to destroy us. Half a century later, we wrestle with the same demons. We have not yet annihilated ourselves, but neither have we fed the hungry.
To counter recent aspersions cast by right-wing pundits on the Catholic concept of social justice, whose rhetoric would seem to label Jesus a socialist with an agenda, President Kennedy’s prescient inaugural speech offers a thoughtful revisit to an American embrace of social justice. Kennedy, America's only Catholic president, wore the cloak of social justice well. In what turned out to be his only inaugural speech, he articulated a vision of Catholic social justice that predated both the documents of Vatican II and Pope John XXIII's social encyclical, Peace on Earth (Pacem in Terris). Kennedy affirmed the Catholic "belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God", and further stated that America would be "unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights".
I try to picture my parents, watching this speech on a black-and-white television in their 1961 living room. They would have been just beginning their thirties, younger than Kennedy, much younger than I am now, the parents of only two of a future six. I try to imagine their reactions to these lofty words: did their souls stir as hopeful young parents at the dawn of a new decade? Or did they dismiss the speech as political rhetoric? I have no memory of my parents as Democrats. I do remember the day nearly three years later, November 22, 1963: it was the day the first color television set my family ever owned was delivered, and the day President Kennedy was assassinated. I was in first grade; my brother in fifth. One of the first things we watched in living color was the president’s funeral, his starred-and-striped, flag-covered coffin pulled by a horse and his little boy saluting its passing. It was one of the few times I ever saw my father cry. It was also the last time he ever voted for a Democrat.
Now I wonder if any infant sense of Catholic mission in national politics died in Dallas along with President Kennedy. I am struck, reading his inaugural speech fifty years later, by how he presented his Catholicism as a springboard to idealism, rather than as something for which he needed to apologize.
From the distinctly Catholic viewpoint that "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead", (Jas, 2:17), Kennedy spoke of a "peaceful revolution of hope", wherein the American people were committed "to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty." Rather than being an isolationist, or promising to pray for the less fortunate from a safe distance, the new President pledged "to convert our good words into good deeds". It is a statement that would seem simplistic today, whose style would likely be ridiculed by a jaded punditry, but it goes to the activist heart of the Catholic calling.
"To those peoples in huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required . . . because it is right." These inaugural words could comfortably appear in any Catholic encyclical on social justice. They exhibit the core beliefs of Catholic social justice teaching: to work for the common good, to insist that political authority behave justly, to uphold human dignity and human solidarity, and to exhibit a preferential option for the poor.
"The kingdom of God is among you," proclaimed Jesus, (Lk 17:21) birthing a revolutionary movement that got him killed, and Kennedy envisioned a new world "where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved": the kingdom of God indeed among us. The work Kennedy saw before the country - the "struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself" - is the very work that Jesus calls us to do in the corporal works of mercy.
The speech further described a global fraternity that would "heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah - to 'undo the heavy burdens . . . and to let the oppressed go free.'" This Biblical vision little resembles our fractured modern world; rather, it is reminiscent of the "Federation" of the futuristic universe of "Star Trek", which was also a creature of the idealistic 1960s. It is also very much a Catholic world view.
The inaugural speech of President Kennedy is best remembered for its "ask not" lines, the immortal words that beckoned his fellow Americans and his fellow citizens of the world to act with "strength and sacrifice" in asking not what the country could do for them, but what they could do for the country and for global freedom. But it is the closing line of the speech that haunts me with its grace and its grasp of Catholic social justice: ". . . let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own."
God's work must truly be our own. These are the words of mission that resonate, that call to us, that guide us even today. Was there ever a clearer, more pared down understanding of what we as people of faith are to be about on God's green earth?