Ted Kennedy: Catholic political icon

US+Sen+Edward+KennedyFrankly, I do not quite know where to start, in terms of focusing on the role of religion in the mainstream media coverage of the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy. For starters, his Catholic faith is a given. At the same time, so is his standing as a deeply troubled leader, husband, father, uncle and patriarch of the always controversial Kennedy clan.

Thus, let me offer this chance for our readers to help us scan the coverage, looking for the best and the worst of the news coverage of the role that faith played or did not play in the life and career of this lion of the U.S. Senate. It is, of course, impossible to separate his work from his standing as a Roman Catholic in the culture of Boston and Massachusetts.

So let me pose this question as a starting point for the discussion (and please read it carefully):

True or false? Based on the information available in the mainstream press coverage of his death, Edward Kennedy is the most influential American Catholic political leader in our nation’s history.

Take a deep breath and start reading, here, here, here and here (of course), for starters.

You may also want to check out some material from two very different evangelicals. First of all, here is a link that will take you to a short statement about Kennedy and his faith from the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners. Here’s the key part:

In the aftermath of the 2004 Presidential elections, the Democrats were roundly accused of losing the “moral values voters” in America, and of being the party of “secularists” who were hostile to faith and religion. The very first Democrat to call me and ask to talk about that accusation and how to change the moral debate in America was Ted Kennedy. He invited me to his home, where he, and his wife Vicki, engaged me in a long and very thoughtful conversation, into the night, about the relationship between faith, morality, and politics. Their own deep Catholic faith was evident and their articulation of it very impressive. Our discussion was not partisan at all — it was not about how to win religion back for the Democrats. Rather, we focused on the great moral issues facing the nation, and how we as people of faith needed to respond to them.

Then, head on over to the weblog of David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network, who has posted some crucial quotes from a 1983 speech by Kennedy entitled “Faith, Truth and Tolerance in America,” which was delivered at the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College (which is now simply called Liberty University).

tedkennedylibertybaptistHere’s a link to the full speech, too. A sample:

… I hope for an America where neither “fundamentalist” nor “humanist” will be a dirty word, but a fair description of the different ways in which people of goodwill look at life and into their own souls.

I hope for an America where no president, no public official, no individual will ever be deemed a greater or lesser American because of religious doubt — or religious belief.

I hope for an America where the power of faith will always burn brightly, but where no modern Inquisition of any kind will ever light the fires of fear, coercion, or angry division.

I hope for an America where we can all contend freely and vigorously, but where we will treasure and guard those standards of civility which alone make this nation safe for both democracy and diversity.

So what kind of Roman Catholic was this Kennedy?

Only God and his father confessor — if he maintained such a relationship throughout his life — have any right to claim inside information about the state of his soul and neither will be granting interviews today. It will be interesting to note the role of the hierarchy in his funeral Mass.

However, journalists can deal with facts. Kennedy took many public stands that clashed with the doctrines of his own faith and, during the final years of his life, caused Catholics on the left and the right to search for every scrap of information about his standing in the church. How tense did this get? Click here.

So here is that question one more time. Read it carefully.

True or false? Based on the information available in the mainstream press coverage of his death, Edward Kennedy is the most influential American Catholic political leader in our nation’s history.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Cheryl

    Not from the mainstream press, but here’s Fr. Raymond de Souza on A Tale of Two Kennedys:


    In my opinion, Ted’s sister Eunice (who recently died also) was the true “lion” in terms of how she lived her Catholic faith in private and in the public square.

  • Kevin

    Dan Burke does a good job pulling it all together on the RNS blog: http://www.religionnews.com/index.php?/rnsblog/lionizing_ted/

  • Jerry

    his standing as a deeply troubled leader, husband, father, uncle and patriarch

    I never thought of him as deeply troubled but perhaps you followed his life and career more closely than I had.

    Only God and his father confessor — if he maintained such a relationship throughout his life

    Do you say what seems to me to be a very snarky comment about each and every Catholic? It seems to me that we should assume the best and not worst about people until proven otherwise.

    In any event, may he rest in peace.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Thank you for the links. I’m looking forward to reading the historical analysis of Kennedy’s career, comparing him to other important Senators. I had no idea, but the US Senate apparently has a “hall of fame,” and the original inductees were chosen in 1957 by a Senate committee chaired by…John F. Kennedy.

    The original inductees were Henry Clay (KY), John C. Calhoun (SC), Daniel Webster (MA), Robert Taft (OH), and Robert La Follette, Sr. (WI), with Arthur Vandenberg (MI) and Robert Wagner (NY) added in 2004. Here’s the link:

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson


    tmatt has written extensively on the distinctions between different kinds of Catholics, and whether or not they go to confession regularly is one of his guideposts. (Relatively few American Catholics go to confession regularly, and those that do tend to be very conservative.) I don’t think tmatt was calling out Kennedy in particular.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Indeed, Mike (#5), and even if Kennedy did go to confession regularly, he may not have had one particular confessor or spiritual director with whom he had a long term relationship.

  • Jerry

    Mike/FrGregACCA, I think Terry should have either spoken from knowledge or kept silent about Senator Kennedy’s confessor. The snarky if he had one is unwarranted.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    I honestly meant no snark, other than to express that confession is now rare. Going to confession on a regular basis today pretty much marks you as a traditionalist.

    Also, how would anyone have direct knowledge of a private, confidential relationship?

    My intention was to say that we should not judge, only a confessor would know. I hope that online conservatives take that into account in the days ahead.

  • Susan

    Kennedy had a set of moral and ethical beliefs … some of which were RC and some were not. Leaving a young woman (possibly not yet dead) in a car after an accident in which he was the driver and very likely intoxicated was deeply immoral. But there is also forgiveness … should he have truly repented. He will be judged by God … as we all will.

    Kennedy was a politician first and last … based on where he spent his time and his energy. I have a lot of experience with politicians at the local level because of my job. I like many of them and know that most at least start with good intentions. However, to be a politician means that you have to be elected and then re-elected. I have yet to see a politician where that bald fact did not have a coarsening effect on the individual.

    There are a lot of RC politicians; almost all are “cafeteria Catholics”. Those that reached the national level seem to have modelled themselves on the Kennedys. Maybe it is not possible to practice the RC religion faithfully and also to be a successful American politician. It is a serious question in my mind.

  • http://sjdahlman.wordpress.com Jim Dahlman

    There’s this Q and A at “The Caucus” blog on the NY Times site. The “A” comes from Adam Clymer, who covered Kennedy as a Times reporter and wrote his biography:


  • http://sjdahlman.wordpress.com Jim Dahlman

    Let’s try pasting that faith-related Q-and-A from Adam Clymer again:

    Senator Kennedy suffered a lot of deaths in his family and fought a lot of his own personal demons, yet he always seemed to come through them strong and steadfast. Was that because he relied on his faith? Did he ever seriously question his faith after so many tragedies?
    — Tamme
    I don’t think he ever doubted. Wondered why, surely, but doubt, I don’t think so. The importance of his faith is often overlooked, perhaps because he didn’t wear his faith on his sleeve. We never talked much about it, but Vicki, his second wife, told me how important his faith ws to him. His mother, who pushed her children to go to church and even go on summer retreats when they would rather be sailing, would have been proud. He often slipped out of the Senate to go to Mass with Vicki.

  • Jay

    So is he an influential Catholic political leader or is he an influential political leader who is Catholic? As the article suggests, he was a representative of cultural Catholics but not official Catholic doctrine.

    Of course, that means he’s part of the subgroup of American Catholics who maintain a position of doctrinal relativism, rather than the ability of the Holy Father to speak on behalf of the entire Church.

  • Julia

    Mike/FrGregACCA, I think Terry should have either spoken from knowledge or kept silent about Senator Kennedy’s confessor. The snarky if he had one is unwarranted.

    Most of the time, confession is anonymous. Most people don’t have a “father confessor” who would know who he was dealing with over a long period of time. And that’s the only kind of confessor who would be able to speak to the state of Ted Kennedy’s soul. So I don’t think it was snarky at all, but very much to the point that we can’t know about the state of his soul.

  • http://www.soilcatholics.blogspot.com Peggy

    I think your statement is TRUE. He’s been among the longest serving senators ever in the US. He has a long list of legislative accomplishments and a strong commitment to those issues he cares about. Even if he weren’t Catholic, he’d hands down be one of the most influential political figures in American history as a general matter.

    Now, given that I don’t agree with many of his positions and I am a politically conservative (socially and economically) Catholic, I am not terribly happy about that truth. The example of a pro-choice/abortion Catholic was born in the Kennedy example–yet, I note that Ted’s recently deceased sister, Eunice, provided a real pro-life Catholic point of view, from left-of-center politics. Of course the personal morality questions and his (bad) example for living the Catholic faith abound as well. Yet, we can’t know the state of his soul on those personal matters. As other readers note, that is for his confessors and God to know and judge.

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  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Back to tmatt’s T/F question: After reviewing lists of U.S. Catholic politicians, I can see only 2 other Catholic political leaders who would be in the running. The first is JFK, and lots of ink will be spilled comparing the political legacies of the Kennedy brothers.

    If Supreme Court justices count as political leaders, then Kennedy might be 2nd or 3rd (depending on JFK’s rank) to Roger Taney, Chief Justice from 1836 to 1864. Taney presided over the high court during the entire run-up to the Civil War, including the Dred Scott decision. In terms of length of tenure and the impact of his influence (you can’t get much bigger than the Civil War!), there’s a strong case that Taney edges out Kennedy.

    BUT – is Taney being discussed in the mainstream press (which was part of tmatt’s question)? I haven’t seen it.

  • Susan

    Actually, confession is not usually anonymous. (One of the changes of Vatican II.) The confession is made face to face with the priest. Yes, one can make a confession from behind a screen … but that method is not preferred by American Catholics.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    To many Catholics, when Ted Kennedy stopped being pro-life as part of his quest for the presidency, he became the sad opposite of the heroic Catholic Thomas More in the play (and movie): “A Man For All Seasons.” In a way Kennedy played the part of Richard Rich to whom St. Thomas sarcastically said: ” “Why, Richard it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world…but for Wales???”

  • Peggy

    Susan: I and many, many other American Catholics do prefer anonymous confession. I just experienced my first face to face and felt sick over it. It was therapeutic advice, not confession of my sins, though the priest did absolve my sins, er ‘struggles.’

    I appreciate the mentions of other significant Catholic political figures, such as Roger Taney. What might be Antonin Scalia’s legacy, I wonder.

  • Peggy

    Re Susan’s comment on anonymous confession. I think that anonymous is still the default approach. I and many, many American Catholics and priests do NOT prefer this method. I don’t know where Susan got this broad claim.