Ted Kennedy and His Faith

As little children, they went to mass each week, and every day in the summertime. "We always had a rosary on our beds; and then, of course, [Mother would] hear our bedtime prayers and do our catechism with us," said Patricia, the sixth of Joseph and Rose Kennedy's nine children, in her mother's memoir, Times to Remember. They thanked God for the food on their table, and at Sunday dinner they discussed the sermon they'd heard that morning. Priests and nuns were regular guests at meals—and house-guests, too—in Hyannis, as caught up in the sailing and tennis as the children themselves. The Kennedys were sons and daughters of privilege; their milestones—baptisms, weddings, too many funerals—were marked in church by America's highest bishops. Teddy, the baby, received his first holy communion from Pope Pius XII in Rome, telling reporters afterward, "He patted my head and told me I was a smart little fellow." Archbishop (soon to be Cardinal) Richard Cushing performed Jack's wedding. That prelate, with his broad Boston-Irish accent, presided over Jack's funeral and helped with Bobby's, too. He barely kept his composure at the first; he wept openly at the second.

As the children of Joe and Rose grew and had their own children, they struggled, as do so many American Roman Catholics, with how to love their ancient church and remain modern, progressive citizens of the land that had given them so much. Some in that generation, and many more in the next, openly decried church teachings and supported birth control—and, when it became law, abortion. Divorce plagued the family; squabbles with Rome about annulments, remarriage, and intermarriage were fought in public. And in 2002, the Kennedys—along with more than 60 million other American Catholics—experienced the pain and revulsion of the sex scandals that started in their own city, Boston, and reverberated throughout the country. Teddy had maintained his parents' habit of cordial relations with the local hierarchy: a priest friend recalls dining with Teddy, his second wife, Vicki, and Cardinal Bernard Law in Hyannis some time before the scandal. But on the day Cardinal Law resigned, Teddy's comments were chilly, brief, and designed to rebuke: "Cardinal Law made the right decision," he said. "Today is a new day." Yet until the day he died, Kennedy considered himself deeply and unquestioningly Catholic.    

Amid all the eulogizing, the death of Edward Moore Kennedy presents an opportunity to reflect on the peculiar nature of American Roman Catholicism and the epochal changes—in piety, in practice, in politics—that have shaken those Catholics through three generations. Born at what Bobby's eldest child, Kathleen, calls "the apex of Catholic power over Catholics," Teddy and his siblings sit at a pivotal point in American religious history, not so much reflecting the American Catholic story as embodying it. Before the Kennedys, Catholics were locally powerful, but nationally suspect. After the Kennedys, Catholics were Americans, and Americans saw Catholics (more or less) as themselves. "The first American experience of the meaning of Roman Catholicism was the three-day funeral of JFK, culminating in the requiem mass, after which the whole country had its grief assuaged by the Catholic liturgy," says James Carroll, a former priest and author of Practicing Catholic. "The whole nation was Catholic for a weekend."
The ascension of the Kennedys to national political power in the 1960s coincided, not accidentally, with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which put great new emphasis on freedom and social justice, yet left modern American Catholics without sensible guidance on personal questions having to do with sex, marriage, and the role of women. It fell to Teddy, the only one of the brothers to live a whole life, to wrestle publicly with the tensions those reforms created for believers—and, eventually, between the restless American laity and the hierarchy who preached to them.

The boy who took communion from the pope was denounced from the pulpit, 35 years later, for supporting Roe v. Wade. The man whose recklessness caused the death in 1969 of Mary Jo Kopechne, and whose carnal appetites created indelible images of personal excess, also championed some of the most important social reforms—on immigration, health care, and apartheid, and on behalf of people with AIDS, disabilities, and cancer. Teddy's faith was unique only in that its contradictions were writ so large; in private, he was a thoughtful, irreverent, rebellious, and devout Catholic, like so many Irish-Americans of his age. "There's a kind of interplay between faith, poetry, religion, and imagination that's part of the Irish tradition," says the priest Gerry Creedon, who knew Kennedy well. Creedon often visited Kennedy at his Washington, D.C., home to celebrate mass during his illness, and what struck him was the joy Kennedy expressed in his devotion: "When we would come to pray at the eucharist, he wasn't offering prayers of petition, he was offering prayers of gratitude. I was wondering if I would be as trusting and appreciative of God as he was in that circumstance. That kind of generosity of spirit—he always [impressed] me as someone who doesn't carry grudges and lets go of them quickly."

The story starts with the matriarch, Rose, who bequeathed her children an ostentatious intimacy with the rites and sacraments of traditional Catholic devotion. Another priest friend of the family remembers an encounter with Rose near the end of her life: "She had had a stroke at the time; she was in a wheelchair. I remember we prayed a decade of the rosary, and she was in her own way praying and responding to us." Rose prayed the rosary every night of her life; she sent her children to Catholic schools; she encouraged them to go on prayer retreats. In one story from Rose's autobiography, 16-year-old Ted is downstairs at Hyannis, regaling his father with schemes of how he'll win sailing races that weekend. His mother walks into the room, just home from mass, and gives her son the news: she's arranged for him to go on retreat that day. "Yes, Mother," young Ted replies. "I'll be ready to go." Joe turns to a friend who is there, his eyes misting, and says, "He's a good boy."

As adults, Rose's children kept up their Catholic practice (except Kathleen, nicknamed "Kick" and shunned for marrying an Anglican). JFK, among the most secular of the children, never missed mass—even on the trail, "when no voter would know whether he attended services," according to Kennedy, Theodore Sorensen's 1965 book. Bobby and Ethel taught their 11 kids what their daughter Kathleen calls a "pervasive" Catholicism: "We had holy-water holders in every door of our house. We said prayers before and after every meal. We went to Roman Catholic schools. On Sundays, we put on our white gloves and shined our shoes. Women wore the mantillas. If we did something good, we got a gold star in heaven." Ted eulogized his mother in 1995, saying, "She was ambitious not only for our success but for our souls... She sustained us in the hardest times by her faith in God, which was the greatest gift she gave us."   

Eunice and Sargent Shriver practiced what may have been a more potent flavor of the faith, influenced by Sarge's childhood in Baltimore, the center of orthodoxy at that time. Both of his parents went to mass daily, their son Timothy says. Sarge could recite the Baltimore Catechism by heart, and frequently did. Their home was "layered with crucifixes and madonnas and other very Catholic sort of statuary. It was not congregational and stark. It was Catholic." Even in the months before her death, when she was too ill to go frequently to mass, Eunice had in her bedroom, says Timothy, "at least—I'm not exaggerating—30 separate images of the Blessed Mother, and I mean 30. I don't mean seven that looks like 30."

Rose's piety was not formulaic. "There is a strong tradition in Catholicism of questioning authority," says Kerry Kennedy, Bobby and Ethel's seventh child and author of Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning. Her cousin Timothy echoes this: "If you're not Catholic, it's hard to understand because, to the outsider, it looks like a rank-and-file, authority-driven, conformity-based adherence religion. The actual experience of most Catholics-and, in particular, European Catholics-is not either/or. It's both/and. We were taught independence and adherence; to respect our consciences and authority; to follow and to lead."

This quality, of being able to rebel and submit at the same time, is a helpful lens through which to view the Kennedys. It explains the success Bobby and Teddy had crusading for social reform from within the political system. It explains why the Kennedys have a special fondness for priests who went against their bishops on issues such as Vietnam and El Salvador. It explains how Ted could tell The Boston Globe in 1994, "I count myself among the growing number of Catholics who support the ordination of women as priests"—despite the Vatican's refusal to consider it. It also explains how Ethel, at 81, continues to go to mass each day, yet regularly walks out when she doesn't like the sermon or the priest who's preaching it.

In his 1960 speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, John F. Kennedy was implicitly talking about this ideal: he was confident that he could take a stand against his church if necessary. "Whatever issue may come before me as president," he said, "I will make my decision in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise." That speech-written by Sorensen and vetted by a Jesuit priest and friend of Cardinal Cushing named John Courtney Murray (who would write much of the document defining religious freedom for the Second Vatican Council)—was a watershed moment for Kennedy and for members of minority religions in America. It helped him win the election.

JFK's political philosophy dovetailed neatly with a theology of conscience that would be developed fully several years later at Vatican II: true religious liberty meant allowing private beliefs to remain private, as long as they did not interfere with the public order. In a civil society, obedience to law had to trump adherence to doctrine when the two were in conflict. "Conscience" was the vehicle with which the individual navigated this treacherous terrain.
Ted, who idolized Jack, believed firmly in the separation of religion and politics. He was never interviewed on the subject of his faith. He never publicly connected his church's teachings on social justice to his policy crusades on behalf of "the least of these," a tack he could have easily taken, as Barack Obama has done. Tim Shriver remembers dining with his uncle in Washington and saying something complimentary about the way George W. Bush connected with people on the level of faith. "Jesus Christ, Timmy!" the senator exploded. "This is what Jack fought so hard against."

In 1983, Ted gave his own version of the Houston speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. A Washington Post reporter discovered that the Moral Majority had sent Kennedy a membership card—despite his being one of their targets at the time. Responding to the reporter's request for comment, Falwell's spokesman Cal Thomas jokingly invited Kennedy to come on down. Kennedy called his bluff. "I told Falwell, and he turned two or three different colors," recalls Thomas. The senator arrived on the appointed day with an adviser and his daughter, Kara, and they all had dinner at Falwell's house. The speech, remembers Thomas, "criticized those who attacked Falwell and conservative Christians. It was incredibly well balanced." In the heated early 1980s, the speech was Ted's attempt to remind Americans of his brother's insistence on tolerance and decorum in the religious sphere: "We must never judge the fitness of individuals to govern on the basis of where they worship, whether they follow Christ or Moses, whether they are called 'born again' or 'ungodly.' Where it is right to apply moral values to public life, let all of us avoid the temptation to be self-righteous and absolutely certain of ourselves."

But Ted—and, indeed, all other Catholic Democrats in the public sphere since JFK—encountered a problem the president never had to grapple with: abortion. Today it's nearly impossible to be elected as a Democrat on the national level without supporting Roe. For Catholic Democrats, then, political necessity must override whatever they learned in Sunday school, no matter what their conscience tells them.

Kennedy did not come easily or gracefully to his pro-choice views. Even before Roe, some of the Kennedys, notably Eunice and Sargent Shriver, were deeply bothered by the ethical questions presented by abortion. In the mid-1960s, the field of fetal research was exploding, and popular support for abortion, especially in cases of fetal deformity or disability, was on the rise. The real-life example of her sister Rosemary, born with mental disabilities, made Eunice an early advocate for the unborn. In July 1967, the Shrivers convened a weekend meeting in Hyannis of about a dozen of the country's most prominent theologians and ethicists to talk about abortion, says Father Charles Curran, who was there. No conclusions were reached, no policy recommendations were made, and, contrary to news reports, Curran says that neither Bobby nor Teddy was present—except one night for dinner, when they showed up with their wives. "It was a command performance," says Curran. "I think they were dragged there by their older sister."

Kennedy would just as soon have left the abortion issue alone. He was his mother's son, Eunice's brother. He understood the excruciating position he was in by taking sides on abortion. In 1971, before Roe, Teddy wrote to a constituent, saying, "When history looks back to this era, it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception." It was not until 1979, the year before his presidential run, that he ceased saying publicly that, though he did not personally believe in abortion, he would not vote to outlaw it. He was denounced for the first time by a Catholic cleric, the bishop of Fall River, Mass., in 1975, and it would not be the last time that happened. 

The questions linger: How do men who cheat on their wives and drink themselves silly also go to mass on Sunday? How do they take communion, apparently authentic in their piety, to cleanse their souls of sin? Among ethnic-Irish Catholics of Ted's generation, this behavior was culturally normal. Timothy Shriver's answer: "What's to rationalize? You mean you shouldn't pray if you haven't got your s--t together? This is another fairly common misconception of faith, which is that people who go to church, or people who pray, or people who talk about their faith or religion must be, somehow, more pious or ethically rigorous or have more morally cleansed lifestyles. The high correlation is supposed to be between faith and your search, the depth of your search, your willingness to try, your willingness to admit error, your hope and belief in the ultimate meaning and value of that search." To hardliners this explanation—that faith is the path, not the destination-may seem self-serving. "A community that gives such primacy to the forgiveness of sins can be a little too forgiving of itself," says Carroll. "It's easy to parody that." That said, he adds, none of the Kennedys has "made their public careers based on moral superiority to anybody." We are all flawed, according to Catholic theology. We are all blessed with the forgiveness that comes with God's love.

In the generation that encompasses about 100 Kennedy cousins, relations with the church are complicated. They are both easier and more difficult. Among the descendants of immigrants from Europe, the era of widespread, strict Catholic devotion in America is all but over. "I try to go [to mass] when I'm home, but I travel a lot," says Kathleen, who adds that she nevertheless has three statues of Our Lady in her bedroom. "A lot of us are finding a way to be Catholic and not go to church."

Many of the cousins have married outside the faith. Many are divorced. Many continue to be so infuriated with the hierarchy because of the sex scandal and its refusal to revise teachings on birth control, homosexuality, and the ordination of women that their relationship with the church can be described best as a kind of détente. Among the cousins' children, says Kathleen, Catholic observance is even more diluted. Like growing numbers of Americans, Rose's great-grandchildren feel perfectly comfortable looking for God in the Himalayas, in meditation, and in social activism as well as (or instead of) in church. Yet it's fair to say that none of Rose's grandchildren would ever imagine themselves to be anything but Catholic. "Who we are is to be Catholic," says Kathleen. "It would be like saying, 'I'm not going to be an American.' Or, 'I'm not going to be a Democrat.' "

Ted, who was not known for great self-reflection, would probably regard these contemporary questions of identity and spirituality as silly. He was, simply, Catholic. He said his prayers, he went to mass, and, afterward, he argued—as he learned to do in his mother's house-with the priest about his sermon. For years he attended church in the Washington suburbs where Father Creedon was the pastor. "He would often chime in and offer his own rendering of what the Gospel meant to him," Creedon says. "He always did that." The priest was also his friend, and together they often joked about religion in an irreverent way, the way Irishmen do. Who, they wondered, was the patron saint of sailors? Which saint helped golfers speed along slow putts? One day, out on his boat at the Cape, Kennedy, who was at the tiller, took the role of the great, wise monk, and Creedon played the novitiate. With a serious face, Kennedy offered the priest mock spiritual advice. "From my long experience in serious spirituality," Kennedy told the priest, "just look up at the horizon when distractions occur." "He [had] that dimension to him: fancy, humor, faith, and religion," Creedon says. Those qualities made Kennedy the family's great eulogizer, wrapping poetry around Catholic mystery to commend his brother Bobby, his mother, and his nephew John Jr. to heaven. Now there's nothing left but God, and for the community of the faithful on earth to eulogize him.  

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