What did Ted Kennedy’s memoir say about his Catholicism?
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As a freshman senator, Ted Kennedy relates, he joined Protestant colleagues at a regular prayer breakfast. (He says quite candidly that he joined for purely political reasons.) When the venerable Sen. Richard Russell asked his young colleague from Massachusetts to lead the group in prayer, Kennedy could think of nothing to say except the standard Catholic formula for grace before and after meals— both of which he said, and then repeated for good measure. He was certainly capable of extemporaneous public speech, but not of spontaneous public prayer.
At times Ted Kennedy refers to Catholicism with a proprietary air, as if the faith were something he owned (or, perhaps, another extension of himself). Although they were never known for theological erudition, the Kennedys were personally acquainted with many Catholic prelates, and Ted seems to believe—against all evidence—that his family influenced the decisions of the Church hierarchy. He makes the preposterous claim that his brother Bobby’s argument against the controversial preaching of Father Leonard Feeney at Harvard “became an animating impulse of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican [sic], which opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962.”
Kennedy mentions his Catholicism hundreds of times in this book, but almost invariably he is referring to the cultural heritage of Catholicism rather than to its doctrinal content or its spiritual exercises—the form rather than the substance of his faith. Still he insists that his faith shaped his political outlook. In one of the book’s most revealing passages, he relates how his thoughts matured as he entered adult life:
My own center of belief, as I matured and grew curious about these things, moved toward the great Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25 especially, in which he calls us to care for the least of these among us, and feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned. It’s enormously significant to me that the only description in the Bible about salvation is tied to one’s willingness to act on behalf of one’s fellow human beings.
It boggles the mind that an adult Catholic—who presumably heard the Scriptures read at every Sunday Mass, even if he never read the Bible himself— could claim that there is only one passage in the Bible addressing the question of salvation. But the above quotation contains another sign, less obvious but even more telling, of the author’s detached attitude toward his faith. When he says that “he calls us to care for the least of these among us,” Kennedy never identifies who “he” is. The name of Jesus does not appear anywhere in this memoir.
“All of my life, the teachings of my faith have provided solace and hope,” Kennedy wrote as he faced the prospect of death. He surely did draw solace from his faith, but not guidance. He knew that the Church offered words of comfort; he never recognized that the Church also spoke with authority. So in his final illness, while he felt the need to write to Pope Benedict XVI, asking for the pontiff’s blessing, he still saw no need to renounce his long history of public opposition to Church teaching on the dignity of life.
A Christianity without Jesus, a Catholicism without sacraments, a doctrine without authority: this is the conception of the Church that emerges from True Compass. Ted Kennedy saw Catholicism as an important part of his identity, of his family history, of his cultural patrimony. But his life story provides very little evidence that his faith shaped his political ideals. On the contrary, it seems clear that his political ideals shaped the content of his faith. The story of Ted Kennedy’s public life is, to an alarming extent, the story of a generation of Catholics—in Boston in particular, in America in general. It is, regrettably, not a story of how these Catholics shaped the popular culture, but of how that culture changed their faith.
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