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More to 1963 then John F Kennedy, the Irish Catholic’s USA experience

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President John F. Kennedy.
President John F. Kennedy.

By one count, nearly 50 books about President John F. Kennedy are slated for release this fall, when the 50th anniversary of the first Catholic president’s assassination is upon us.

But for the Irish in America, there is a whole lot more to 1963 then November 22 in Dallas, as traumatic as that event was.

A few weeks back, I finally caught a movie I’d been meaning to watch called The Cardinal.  It was released in 1963 and chronicles the life of an Irish immigrant’s son in Boston, who goes on to become -- you guessed it -- a cardinal.

The movie has some familiar names in it.  Burgess Merideth plays an ailing priest while John Huston steals the show as a wily cardinal.

The film was directed by the great Otto Preminger (Anatomy of a Murder) and featured tragic New York-born Irish American Maggie McNamara (once an Academy Award Best Actress nominee) in her last role. She committed suicide at the age of 49.

The Cardinal earned numerous Academy Award nods and won the Golden Globe for Best Drama.  The three-hour film tackles immigration, assimilation, the Jim Crow south and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Given this historical sweep, you might think The Cardinal is a near-classic.  But if you’ve long known about this film you’re a more dedicated movie lover than me, because it took a long time before I’d ever heard of it.

The movie is far from perfect.  To say that star Tom Tryon, as ambitious priest Stephen Fermoyle, is wooden would probably be an insult to trees.

But The Cardinal reveals important things about the Catholic experience in America.  In some ways it is the perfect movie for the Kennedy era -- it illustrates how far Irish Catholics had come, as well as problems that would haunt them into the 21st century.

The film confronts abortion in a way that seems striking in 2013, much less 1963.  Fermoyle’s sister (spoiler alert!) becomes pregnant around the time of World War I but there are health complications.  As the family priest, Fermoyle is the one tasked with making a choice that will haunt him forever.
The film also confronts the question of religious diversity, since Fermoyle’s sister wants to marry a Jewish man who very capably debates the priest on theological questions.

The Jim Crow plotline ranges from stereotypical to ridiculous, though to Fermoyle’s credit he forces indifferent southern church leaders to confront the sin of racism before their eyes.

But as one southern Catholic puts it, “We’re a minority down here, too.”  It’s not a great comparison, but it is true that reactionary forces in the U.S. still viewed the church as foreign and threatening.

Were The Cardinal truly bold it would have looked to northern parishes, where there was also plenty of racism, as 1960s and 1970s clashes in Chicago, Boston and elsewhere would show.

Ultimately, The Cardinal is about Irish Catholic triumph in America, but simmering underneath the film are burning questions about the high price paid for that triumph.  The Kennedy family would know a little bit about that, wouldn’t they?

Meanwhile, one reason it took so long for Catholics to assimilate in America was the feeling that they could never leave the bosom of the parish, that they would always be intellectually narrow.

But in 1963, author J.F. Powers won the National Book Award for his novel Morte D’Urban.  (A book about priests, no less!)  Powers, who lived in Ireland for years and is the subject of a new book edited by his daughter called Suitable Accommodations, had already made a name for himself with his short stories.  As Paul Elie recently wrote in Harper’s, “For Catholics, having Powers in The New Yorker was like having Kennedy in The White House.  He had gained entry into the sophisticated world the magazine represented.”

Other Catholics such as Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Katherine Anne Porter received literary awards around 1963, prompting O’Connor herself to say, “(T)his should be some kind of answer to the people who are saying we don’t contribute to the arts.”

When November 22 rolls around, by all means, read some of the JFK books.

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