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The Lion as Catholic

What did Ted Kennedy's memoir say about his Catholicism?

By From the February 2010 issue

True Compass: A Memoir
By Edward M. Kennedy
(Twelve, 532 pages, $35)

“The state and city of my birth are extensions of myself and my family,” Sen. Ted Kennedy writes in his memoir, True Compass. I think this sentence is an error: one of remarkably few editorial lapses in a book that was rushed to market just days after the legendary senator’s death. Presumably he intended to say that the Kennedy family is an extension of Boston society, not that Boston is an extension of the Kennedy family.

Yet in an odd way, the text as it stands is accurate. The Kennedy political dynasty dominated Boston so thoroughly, for so long, that shifts in the political sympathies of the Kennedy family have produced changes in the Massachusetts political landscape.

Old Joseph P. Kennedy, the founder of the dynasty, was a very conservative Democrat: an isolationist before World War II, a supporter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy thereafter. His views roughly matched prevailing public opinions in Boston, where Democrats had gained firm control of the political system but ethnic Irish and Italian Catholics retained strong conservative instincts.

By today’s standards, certainly, John F. Kennedy was a conservative president. As James Piereson has pointed out in his perceptive book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, the JFK of liberal myth is not the man who, during his tenure in the White House, enthusiastically slashed taxes, boldly confronted the Soviet Union in Cuba and Berlin, and initiated an undeclared war in southeast Asia. The “Camelot legacy” bears scant resemblance to JFK’s actual career. Piereson shows how the political left transformed the image of JFK after his death, converting a conservative Democrat into a liberal icon. But he may underestimate how much Ted Kennedy influenced that process. For 40 years the youngest of the Kennedy clan was the guardian of the Camelot legacy, and unlike his brothers Ted was never linked to any conservative cause.

At his death last summer, Ted Kennedy was hailed as the “liberal lion of the U.S. Senate.” His friends cited his long record of legislative accomplishment, which cannot be denied. Rather than arguing about the merits of the bills he sponsored, his critics were more likely to point to the character flaws that were exposed at Harvard, at Chappaquiddick, and at Palm Beach.

Actually Kennedy is quite forthright when he addresses those missteps in his memoir. In a chapter unflinchingly titled “The Harvard Screwup”—a reference to the episode in which he was tossed out of school for cheating on an exam—Ted recalls his father’s scolding:

“There are people who can mess up in life and not get caught,” he advised me at one point, “but you’re not one of them, Teddy.”

Old Joe was right. Teddy didn’t get away with it; he overcame it. The tragedy at Chappaquiddick left a permanent stain on his reputation, and although he does not bare the details in this book, he does acknowledge his wrongdoing. His drinking and womanizing later in life were well known; he acknowledges those failings as well. Neither his colleagues in Washington nor his constituents in Massachusetts were under the impression that Ted was an angel. He was accepted for what he was: a flawed man who was an effective legislator.

Because they concentrated so heavily on the misbehavior that he never denied, most of Kennedy’s conservative critics failed to realize the real political masterstroke that he never discussed. Over the course of his political career, Kennedy steered steadily leftward without endangering his popular support in Massachusetts; he brought his constituency along with him. Still more remarkably, he became more and more open in his conflicts with the Catholic Church—eventually becoming the most influential opponent of Catholicism on key public issues—while remaining the most visible Catholic legislator in Washington.

Throughout his public life, and especially at his death, Ted Kennedy was identified as a devout Catholic. He was, after all, the standard-bearer for the most famous Catholic family in America. His brother had been the country’s first Catholic president; his father was so close to Boston’s Cardinal Cushing that he referred to him as “Richard” (which is curious, really, since everyone else in Boston called him “Dick”); he himself had received his First Communion from Pope Pius XII.

How did Kennedy manage to maintain the public perception that he was a loyal Catholic, even while he worked to shatter the solidarity that once characterized the Catholic voting bloc? How did he keep alive the traditional presumption that ethnic Catholics belonged in the Democratic Party, even as the Democratic Party began to marginalize anyone who upheld Catholic moral teachings? That question is never addressed in True Compass. In his memoir, as in his public career, Ted Kennedy deflects attention from his most remarkable—albeit ultimately destructive—achievement.

IN MOST RESPECTS True Compass is a typical political memoir, marred only by the usual defects of the genre. The author guides us through the historic events to which he was an eyewitness— and in Ted Kennedy’s case there are quite a few, ranging over an extraordinarily long career of political involvement, from the Court of St. James before World War II through the Obama inauguration. But these events are always seen from the author’s peculiar perspective. History always seems to bear out his arguments. Like the hero in a spy novel, he turns up at the critical time in countless instances, and his speeches are depicted as the turning points of political battles.

Predictably, the author also has a few scores to settle. Ted Kennedy is fairly gentle in his treatment of his family’s Republican foes, tossing only a few barbs at Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But he is caustic in his portrayal of the Democrats whom he and his brothers sought to unseat. He is completely negative in his treatment of Eugene McCarthy. (“I believe he’d felt himself more Catholic, more liberal, and more intellectual than John Kennedy,” Ted writes. If McCarthy thought that way, he was right on all three points.) True Compass suggests that President Jimmy Carter was hostile because of an unreasonable fear that Ted would challenge him for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1980. But of course Ted did just that.

Against those flaws—which, again, are typical of a political memoir—one must weigh the strengths of this book. Kennedy is moving in his description of the fierce loyalty that united his family. He provides a convincing explanation of how Joseph P. Kennedy instilled such exceptional vigor and drive in his children. His devotion to his second wife, Vicki, comes through clearly in these pages, as does his tremendous love for the sea and especially for sailing. On the other hand, the late senator’s Catholic faith remains an elusive quality. He identifies strongly with Catholicism, but it is never clear what it is, exactly, to which he feels so attached. He writes of the Church, but not of the sacraments; he speaks of his faith, but not of God.

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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About the Author

Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News ( and the author of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture (Encounter).