Joan Vennochi

Patrick Kennedy vs. the church

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / November 14, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

WHEN IT comes to America’s most famous Catholic family, no true compass guides the Roman Catholic Church.

After Ted Kennedy’s death, that’s clearer than ever.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley presided over the funeral of the world-famous US senator, who also happened to be an abortion rights advocate. When challenged by conservative Catholics, O’Malley defended his participation as a way to promote civility when discussing divisive issues. O’Malley also used the occasion to lobby President Obama, telling him that Catholic bishops would not support a health care reform plan that includes a provision for abortion or could open the way to abortions in the future.

At a graveside ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Cardinal Theodore A. McCarrick read aloud the letters exchanged between the dying senator and Pope Benedict XVI. In his letter, Kennedy listed the ways in which his public policy views mirrored the social teachings of the church. “I have always tried to be a faithful Catholic,’’ he wrote.

The pope’s response was polite, if tepid. It reflected the ambivalence of a pontiff who knew the ways in which Kennedy’s views did not mirror church teachings, but did not want to point them out to a dying, yet still powerful, man. But now there’s no such reluctance when it comes to Kennedy’s son.

With Patrick Kennedy, the cassocks are off.

After Representative Kennedy of Rhode Island questioned why the church is vowing to fight any health care bill that does not explicitly ban the use of public money for abortions, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence fired back. Tobin called Kennedy’s support of abortion rights “a deliberate and obstinate act of will’’ that was “unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members.’’

In a radio interview, Tobin went on to say, “If you freely choose to be a Catholic, it means you believe certain things, you do certain things. If you cannot do all of that in conscience, then you should perhaps feel free to go somewhere else.’’

It’s an echo of what happened in 1975, when the bishop of Fall River denounced Ted Kennedy for supporting Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

The intersection of faith, politics, and power has always been a complicated part of the Kennedy legacy. To persuade voters to elect him as America’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy had to declare political independence from Rome. Yet over the decades, personal ties remained strong between the church and the Kennedy family.

Rose Kennedy, the family matriarch, was highly religious. In his memoir, “True Compass,’’ published after his death, Ted Kennedy recounts how he received his first holy communion from Pope Pius XII in Rome.

The late Cardinal Richard Cushing of Boston was a close family friend. He married Jack Kennedy and presided over his funeral, long before abortion became part of the national debate.

More recently, Kennedy family access to the church turned into an issue for Joseph P. Kennedy II, when the then-Massachusetts congressman sought to annul his marriage in 1993.

The Archdiocese of Boston granted the annulment, leading Kennedy’s former wife, Sheila Rauch, to write a book “Shattered Faith: A woman’s struggle to stop the Catholic Church from annulling her marriage.’’ She wrote that the family’s influence made it possible to treat a 12-year marriage as if it never existed. The annulment was eventually overturned.

When the Boston Archdiocese was rocked by the clergy abuse scandal, Ted Kennedy said his thoughts on whether Cardinal Bernard Law should resign were private. When Law finally resigned, Kennedy said, “Cardinal Law made the right decision. Today is a new day.’’

The fight between Patrick Kennedy and the Providence bishop signals the start of another new day.

Echoing his father’s letter to the pope in which Ted Kennedy acknowledged human imperfections, Patrick Kennedy wrote his own letter to Tobin, saying “I embrace my faith which acknowledges the existence of an imperfect humanity.’’

Responded Tobin: “Sorry you can’t chalk it up to ‘imperfect humanity.’ ’’

For the church, the time for comfort and civility is over. That’s using the compass of expedience.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at

More opinions

Find the latest columns from: