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Dare We Hope That Ted Kennedy Be Saved?

Edward M. Kennedy, True Compass (New York: Twelve, 2009), 532 pp., $35, Hardcover.


Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.

As a Catholic teenager of Boston Irish heritage, fascination with the Kennedys was almost a matter of faith in the 1960s. Pres. John Kennedy's photo complemented Pope John XXIII's in many Massachusetts homes, including my paternal grandmother's. Perhaps that fascination is never outgrown. Is it possible that Ted, the youngest of the Kennedy brothers, was in good faith when he advocated gay rights and abortion; that he believed his positions were consonant with Catholicism? How could he? With those questions in mind, I approached the late senator's memoirs, searching for his answers, or at least some insight that would let me form an opinion.

Unlike Bobby and Jack, Ted had ample opportunity to reflect upon his life in anticipation of his death: he finished True Compass while aware of his impending death, and it was released shortly after his demise. The first part is a paean to childhood among the Kennedy family and their friends. He does not shy away from discussing Catholicism; he embraces it. "Both of my parents were deeply religious, and the family prayed together daily and attended mass together at least weekly," writes Kennedy. "Yet it is to Rose Kennedy, mainly, to whom I owe the gift of faith as the foundation of my life. It is a core factor in my understanding of who I am."

Ted was introduced to the Church's princes early in life. "Mother delighted in her acquaintances with Catholic bishops and cardinals, and, later, popes." Boston's Richard Cardinal Cushing and Ted's father "enjoyed a long and profound friendship." The Cardinal would visit Cape Cod, and the two men "liked to go out on the Marlin, dad's motor boat, with a pitcher of chowder and another pitcher of daiquiris, and talk theology and world issues as they cruised." When Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli visited the United States in 1936, "one of his last stops was at our house. I remember crawling up onto his lap. I was fascinated by his long robe and scarlet skullcap, and his long aristocratic nose. We still have the couch where he sat, and the plaque that Mother put on it." Ted witnessed Pacelli's coronation as Pope Pius XII "from the front row of a stand in a portico outside St. Peter's Basilica," and several days later, "I received my First Holy Communion from the pope himself at the Vatican." He was the first person to receive First Communion from that pope, who told him: "I hope you always be good and pious as you are today" — no doubt as an admonition rather than a prediction. Cardinal Spellman officiated at his first wedding. (Kennedy had a civil ceremony for his second.)

Particularly interesting is Ted's belief, "though I cannot be certain," that Bobby was responsible for the excommunication of Fr. Leonard Feeney. Bobby was "troubled" that Fr. Feeney taught "that salvation for people outside the Catholic Church was impossible. … Dad could not believe that Bobby had heard Father Feeney correctly. 'But,' he said, 'if you feel strongly that you did, I'm going to go into the other room and call Richard.  Maybe he'll want you to go up to Boston and see him.' 'Richard' was Richard Cardinal Cushing."

"Bobby said he felt strongly indeed. Bang! Dad called up 'Richard' and arranged for Bobby to visit him," leading, Ted says, to the Cardinal's banning Fr. Feeney from speaking, the condemnation of his teachings and the suspension of his duties, and then his excommunication. "Nor did [Bobby's] principled gesture end with the banishment of Feeney. Reinforced by Cardinal Cushing's discussions with the papal hierarchy in Rome, it became an animating impulse of the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, which opened under Pope John XXIII in 1962." Those who think the Holy Spirit inspired Vatican II might be a bit surprised to find out that Bobby Kennedy was its animating impulse.

After discussing his childhood, much of Ted's memoir focuses on politics, family, and the tragedies that befell his family, often in the context of how they impacted his political fortunes and positions. There's precious little introspection or examination of his life's meaning, but instead a celebration of his political life. Those searching for a companion to Augustine's Confessions will be disappointed.

In the final pages, Ted reiterates that "My faith, and the love of following its rituals, has always been my foundation and my inspiration," but other than photos of Ted with cardinals and popes, the book doesn't discuss Catholicism much, except to recite what churches he attended for weddings and funerals. He claims "an extraordinary religious experience … in Gdansk with Lech Walesa," but never describes it, and says Pope John Paul II's influence on him was "profound," but doesn't describe that either. He does, though, criticize the Church, "a potential bulwark for restraint," for not facilitating the court-ordered school busing of children in Boston's public schools in the mid-1970s. "Richard Cardinal Cushing, my father's old friend, was in the waning days of his life and physically too frail to be a force. Sadly, some local priests actually went on the anti-busing marches."

Ted's position on abortion receives only cursory mention, and then only in the context of opposing the Supreme Court nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. "Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions." When, in the context of welfare reform, Ted pleads that we should not "be hurting innocent babies who needed assistance," the na´ve reader might be forgiven if he thought Ted also opposed abortion.  True Compass is a bit more forthcoming on gay rights; Ted gives the issue two paragraphs, bragging that in 1980 he "he broke new ground in campaigning openly for gay rights. … We were overwhelmed by TV cameras. No major-party candidate had ever appeared at a fund-raiser organized by gay supporters."

Nothing in True Compass explicitly addresses the questions that interested me: Did Ted believe his positions on abortion and gay rights were consistent with Catholicism? If so, how could he?

There are hints, though. Richard Cardinal Cushing, Ted recounts, "made unparalleled contributions to my own racial and religious understanding." In From Patriotism to Pluralism: How Catholics Initiated the Repeal of Birth Control Restrictions in Massachusetts, excerpted and adapted in Boston College Magazine, Seth Meehan documents that Cardinal Cushing, a devotee of John Courtney Murray, facilitated the repeal of Massachusetts's ban on contraceptives in the mid-1960s. When the Massachusetts legislature voted to end the ban on contraceptives, it did so with the approval and assistance of the Boston Archdiocese in concert with the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. It takes little effort to discern that the religious understanding imparted by Cardinal Cushing to Ted was defective, particularly where it addressed human sexuality.

True Compass makes clear that whenever Ted sought to understand a particular issue, he prided himself in assembling the best experts to educate and advise him, often sequestering himself with them until he thought he had mastered the issue. In The Politics of Abortion, Anne Hendershott recounts that in July 1964, an assembly of Catholic dissenters, including Fr. Robert Drinan, Fr. Richard McCormick, Fr. Charles Curran, Fr. Giles Milhaven, other theologians, and at least one bishop, went to the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port to meet with Ted and Bobby to discuss the position a Catholic politician should take on abortion. According to Milhaven, a Jesuit who later left the priesthood, describing it at a 1984 meeting of Catholics for a Free Choice: "The theologians worked for a day and a half among ourselves at a nearby hotel. In the evening, we answered questions from the Kennedys and the Shrivers. Though the theologians disagreed on many a point, they concurred on certain basics ... and that was that a Catholic politician could in good conscience vote in favor of abortion [and that] in certain situations abortion is morally licit and may even be obligatory." Here, no effort is needed to discern that the priests misled Ted (though he may have been eager to be misled).

In the 1960s, neither Bobby nor Ted publicly espoused the position urged upon them by those priests. In an August 1971 letter to a constituent, Ted said: "While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized—the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old. When history looks back at 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." Perhaps Ted meant this; or perhaps it was posturing, reflecting his read of the public's mood; or perhaps he was biding his time, awaiting the proper moment to implement the recommendations of Drinan, Curran, et al. In any event, Ted reversed his position after Roe v. Wade, and thereafter was stridently pro-choice.

So, again, is it possible that Ted was so ill-informed or so misinformed that he believed his pro-abortion and gay rights stances consonant with the faith? Let's revisit the Fr. Leonard Feeney controversy. In Ted's retelling, Bobby's objection to Fr. Feeney's teaching was its "implied consignment of millions of worthy souls to Purgatory." Purgatory! Not hell, but purgatory, Ted? Didn't Ted know that any soul in purgatory is assured of eventual entry into heaven? If Ted's grasp of Catholicism was so tenuous that he didn't understand the difference between purgatory and hell, who knows what else he didn't understand. Early in True Compass, Ted says Matthew 25 is "enormously significant to me": "The ones who will be deprived of salvation—the sinners—are those who've turned away from their fellow man. People responsive to the great human condition, and who've tried to alleviate its misery—these will be the ones who join Christ in Paradise." In his simplistic view, Ted, who took Thomas More as his confirmation patron by accident, seemingly thought his political stances should place him in company of the angels despite—or perhaps because of—his advocacy of abortion.

A month or so before his death, Ted asked President Obama, "a man of deep faith himself," who "understands how important my Roman Catholic faith is to me" to hand-deliver a somewhat mawkish letter from Ted to Pope Benedict XVI. Saying "I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith I have tried to right my past," Ted requested the Pope's prayers, recited a litany of his political efforts, and avoided mention of, or any expression of repentance for, any positions he espoused contrary to Catholic teaching, including his abortion and gay marriage advocacy.

My severely disabled grandson Liam was baptized by a Jesuit in Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital shortly after his birth in May 2009 and enrolled on the baptismal record of the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Liam was unable to move and could breath only with the assistance of a ventilator. Telling my daughter that the hospital had a quiet room with soothing music, the hospital staff repeatedly gave her the option of disconnecting his vent and allowing him to die in her arms. Some staff members pressured her to do so. One insisted vehemently that I persuade her to end his life. Liam turned four in May of this year; he remains unable to breathe on his own; his muscles are such that he is limp, capable of only minimal movement. He lives with us in my home. He is intelligent, happy, cheerful, and a joy. St. Damien of Molokai is his confirmation saint.

Three months after Liam's birth, Boston's Sean Cardinal O'Malley attended Ted Kennedy's televised funeral Mass, which Father Donald Monan, S.J., former president of Boston College, celebrated at the same basilica. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus performed and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang Schubert's Ave Maria.  Cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed Bach solo, and then joined Placido Domingo, who sang Panis Angelicus. President Obama and three former presidents attended, with Obama delivering a eulogy.

Acknowledging that "the Senator's wake and Catholic funeral were controversial because of the fact that he did not publically support Catholic teaching and advocacy on behalf of the unborn," Cardinal O'Malley blogged that "there are those who objected, in some cases vociferously, to the Church's providing a Catholic funeral for the Senator. In the strongest terms I disagree with that position." He posted pictures of himself with President Obama. But Cardinal O'Malley evaded the salient point: the ostentatiousness of the funeral was inappropriate, even scandalous, given that Ted was a prominent pro-choice politician. The funeral seemed a celebration of Americanism or, perhaps, a purchased indulgence. Some suggested it was Ted's canonization. Somewhere, Cardinal Cushing was smiling.

Press reports suggested that Ted Kennedy received the Church's last rites shortly before his death. Let's hope he had sincere repentance for his sins, including any that clergy may have abetted. Say a prayer for the repose of his soul, and another for the members of the Church's hierarchy.CW

James G. Bruen, Jr. writes frequently for Culture Wars.

This review was published in the June 2013 issue of Culture Wars.

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