WASHINGTON — Al-though John F. Kennedy’s speech in Houston nearly 50 years ago could be seen as “a passionate appeal for tolerance,” the candidate’s remarks about how his Catholicism would affect his presidency “profoundly undermined the place … of all religious believers in America’s public life,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver.

“His speech left a lasting mark on American politics. It was sincere, compelling, articulate – and wrong,” the archbishop said in a March 1 talk at Houston Baptist University on “The Vocation of Christians in American Public Life.”

Speaking to the Greater Houston Ministerial Alliance on Sept. 12, 1960, less than two months before his election as the first Catholic U.S. president, Kennedy said that if his duties as president should “ever require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I would resign the office.” He also said he would not “disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.”

“But in its effect, the Houston speech did exactly that,” Archbishop Chaput said. “It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way. It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties.”

He said Kennedy’s talk led to a situation today when there are “more Catholics in national public office than ever before” but at the same time fewer who could “coherently explain how their faith informs their work, or who even feel obligated to try.”

“Too many Catholics confuse their personal opinions with a real Christian conscience,” the archbishop said. “Too many live their lives as if it were a private idiosyncrasy – the kind that they’ll never allow to become a public nuisance. And too many just don’t really believe.

“Maybe it’s different in Protestant circles,” he added. “But I hope you’ll forgive me if I say, ‘I doubt it.’”

Moving to the question of what “a proper Christian approach to politics” would be, Archbishop Chaput outlined the skills needed by “the Christian citizen”:

  • a zeal for Jesus Christ and his church;
  • a conscience formed in humility and rooted in Scripture and the believing community;
  • the prudence to see which issues in public life are vital and foundational to human dignity, and which ones are not; and
  • the courage to work for what’s right.

Among the “urgent issues that demand our attention as believers” he listed:

  • abortion
  • immigration
  • our obligations to the poor, the elderly and the disabled;
  • questions of war and peace;
  • our national confusion about sexual identity and human nature, and the attacks on marriage and family life that flow from that confusion;
  • the growing disconnection of our science and technology from real moral reflection;
  • the erosion of freedom of conscience in our national health care debates; (and)
  • the content and quality of the schools that form our children.

He called abortion “the foundational human rights issue of our lifetime” and said, “We need to do everything we can to support women in their pregnancies and to end the legal killing of unborn children.”

The Denver archbishop called on all Christians to unite in “renewing the nation that has served human freedom so well.”

“The vocation of Christians in American public life does not have a Baptist or Catholic or Greek Orthodox or any other brand-specific label,” he said.

In a second speech during his Houston visit, Archbishop Chaput urged Catholic health care professionals gathered at the University of St. Thomas to rededicate themselves “to being truly Christian and deeply Catholic” in their work.

“We need to ask ourselves how ‘Catholic’ we really want to be,” he said in the March 2 address. “If the answer is ‘pretty much’ or ‘sort of’ or ‘on my own terms’ — then we need to stop fooling ourselves.”

“If you’re a doctor or ethicist or hospital administrator or system executive working in Catholic health care, and in good conscience you cannot support Catholic teaching or cannot apply it with an honest will, then you need to follow your conscience,” the archbishop said. “It may be time to ask whether a different place to live your vocation, outside Catholic health care, is also a more honest place for your personal convictions.

“What really can’t work is staying within Catholic health care and not respecting its religious and moral principles with all your skill, and all your heart,” he added.

He said the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” offer “practical, real-world guidance for your daily work.”

Archbishop Chaput criticized what he called “a national pattern” of efforts by various state and local governments “to press Catholic hospitals, clinics and other social service institutions into violating their religious principles.”

“In a nation built largely by people of faith, with a long history of religious liberty, this is a battle Catholics should never have been forced to fight,” he said. “What kind of society would need to coerce religious believers into doing things that undermine their religious convictions — especially when those same believers provide vital services to the public?”

He also said the current proposals for health care reform “with any hope of advancing now in Washington all remain fatally flawed on the abortion issue, conscience protections and the inclusion of immigrants.”

“But the even harsher reality is this: Whether we get good health care reform or not, legislative and judicial attacks on Catholic health care will not go away, and could easily get worse,” Archbishop Chaput said.