Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.
By a providential set of circumstances, I recently visited the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Take the kids to Disney World, if you will. But the Space Center has the right stuff. Real stuff.
It features John F. Kennedy’s speech in 1962 at Rice University, a year before he was killed, committing America to go to the moon.
But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
JFK was not an exemplary Catholic, man, or president. And the “best and the brightest,” the whiz kids who gathered around him and bungled Vietnam and much more, were not what they imagined themselves to be. But they probably helped with the moon speech, and Kennedy delivered it with a clarity and emotion unmatched by any president since – with the exception of Ronald Reagan.
Watch the video clip; it’s astonishing, given the state of our leadership and public discourse today, that not all that long ago an American president could speak like that of measuring “the best of our energies and skills.” And that the American people responded to that kind of appeal.
Now, to be sure, the decision to go to the moon was part of the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. Russia, despite its manifold failures in many other areas, was significantly ahead of the United States in the space race. But even allowing for the political and military elements behind JFK’s speech, there was also something else, something timeless: an invocation of the heroic in a good cause, which always appeals to upright men and women, and often helps to create the very kind of human beings necessary for great things.
We take a lot for granted about the space program and tend not to value it much anymore. Journalists often criticize the clumsy bureaucratic side of NASA, an agency of the Federal government. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have shown that the private sector can vastly outperform government programs in both daring and innovation – who but Musk and his team thought you could make a reliable lift vehicle that would land upright on a barge and be reusable? And political activists sometimes dismiss the whole space adventure as a distraction from the work that needs to be done here on earth.
But those tentative early years still speak of something humanly great. And there was a price to be paid for such heroism. As JFK admitted in the same speech, he was proposing “the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.” Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger B. Chaffee died less than five years later in a fire during a test on the launchpad for Apollo I. Two whole Shuttle crews were killed in terrifying accidents.
When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Mother Teresa – a woman hard to impress – remarked on the courage and skill it took. (She also is reported to have said that if there were the poor on the moon, her sisters would go there too.)
You cannot look at all this history and help but wonder: if we are capable – or once at least were capable – of doing such hard things in a secular pursuit, why do we not undertake the even harder and nobler task of getting ourselves to what St. Augustine called “the heaven of heavens”? Why do we seem to have few, if any, religious leaders who can issue a heroic call like the one that JFK pronounced on that singular day in Houston? Why do our people now seem deaf to such appeals?
G.K. Chesterton is often quoted about why it’s wrong to say that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; It’s been found difficult and left untried. Or rather we might now add, that was once the case. Besides efforts within the Church herself now to discard millennia of defined teachings in faith and morals, a more general attitude – almost an assumption – has crept in among us. Those hard Christian things are now often described, even by the highest Vatican authorities as “ideals.” We can’t, our leaders suggest, expect average Catholics to be Catholics.
Vatican II, in generous recognition of the dignity of all God’s faithful people, re-emphasized “the universal call to holiness.” (Lumen Gentium 5) We need mercy and forgiveness, to be sure, given our sins and errors. But we – all of us – have also been called to the hard stuff, the spiritual moonshot.
Life is hard. Death is hard. A Faith that does not respond to that has little to say to creatures in our fallen condition.
13 Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. 14 How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. (Mt. 7)
It’s only after you find “life” that you discover that, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Mt. 11.30) If you start with the easy or assume that it ought to be easy, you’ll never develop the Right Stuff.
It calls to us because it’s hard, as it has called to people, against all earthly odds, for twenty centuries.