Fr. Sirico: Sen. Kennedy and also cultural Catholics whoe “relinquish the substance of the faith if it gets in the way”

On the site of National Review our friend Fr. Robert Sirico has an obituary for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Kennedy the Catholic    [Rev. Robert A. Sirico]

I only met Edward Kennedy once.

I had been invited to visit then-senator Phil Gramm, who was contemplating a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. Having read some of my musings on the topic, Senator Gramm wanted to brainstorm about some innovative welfare-reform policies that would simultaneously make economic sense and really help the poor.

After we had chatted for some time in his office, a bell rang and Senator Gramm rose. “I need to take a vote. Walk with me and let’s continue this conversation,” he said.

As we walked down the corridor, I could spy familiar names on the various Senate office doors. We came to an elevator that would take us down to an underground subway connecting the Senate offices to the Senate chamber. It was a small elevator, no more than a large closet. Senator Gramm, an aide, and I tucked ourselves in and the door began to slide shut.

Just before closing, an arm came through to stop the door’s close. As it reopened, I found myself standing face-to-face with the Lion of the Senate, arguably the most prominent Catholic layman in the country, scion of the most prominent Catholic family, perhaps, in U.S. history. Kennedy immediately looked me up and down, and then quizzically glanced over to Senator Gramm trying to figure out why his colleague was hanging out with a priest.

As Senator Kennedy stepped into the elevator, Senator Gramm welcomed him with his Southern tones, “Come on in, Teddy. We’ve called you here to pray for you.”

Without missing a beat, Senator Kennedy tossed a mischievous wink in my direction, nudging me with his elbow in Catholic camaraderie and replied in his Bostonian accent, “Uhh [there was that familiar pause of his], uhh, no Phil, Father and I have called you here to pray for you.”

There was laughter as the elevator door slid closed. It was my turn to speak so I decided to enter the spirit of the moment.

I stood erect, place my hand on Senator Kennedy’s broad shoulder and said, “Actually, senator, this is an exorcism.”

The laughter in that elevator, which spilled out onto the train platform, was electric, causing the by-standing senators to look in our direction and wonder what in the world would have Senators Kennedy and Gramm in such uproarious laughter with a Catholic priest.

And so, I had mixed feelings on the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing. A memory of a pleasant encounter, but knowledge that despite our common baptism, Senator Kennedy and I differed in some very radical ways on issues of public policy, economics, heath care, marriage, and, most fundamentally, on matters related to life.

James Joyce once remarked that the Catholic Church was “Here comes everybody,” and [This is good…] while I relish the experience of being part of a Church rather than a sect, a Church in which there are a host of matters on which faithful Catholics can disagree, I also recognize that there are some defining issues from which are derived the very sense of a shared identity. [We can disagree and argue about many things. But when it comes to life, we need to be on the same page.] From my own life and in my pastoral work, I understand that not everyone lives up to the demands of the faith all the time. Graham Greene’s famed “whiskey priest” in The Power and the Glory was the prototype of an essentially good, yet flawed man.

Yet there are some matters so grave that they go beyond mere flaws and work to diminish or even fracture an identity. I fear that this will be part of Ted Kennedy’s legacy, notwithstanding his other personal weaknesses.

What might the face of the Democratic party, indeed American politics, today look like if Ted Kennedy had, instead of reversing himself, maintained the unflinching stance of his late sister Eunice in her consistent defense of vulnerable human life — whether that of a mentally handicapped child or sister or an infant in the womb? Instead, the senator took the dubious advice of certain Boston Jesuits [Repeat after me… 1964 … Jonsen… Fuchs… Milhaven… McCormick… Curran… Drinan… Hyannisport ] to abandon that tradition and hence those most vulnerable.

Many will speak and write of the legacy of Ted Kennedy in the days ahead. For me, as an East Coast “ethnic” grandchild of immigrants, Kennedy’s death symbolizes several cogent moments in Catholic America.

It marks the passing of a generation that thought that being Catholic, Democratic, and pro–New Deal were synonymous. We now live in an age where many Catholic Americans are very happy to be described as pro-market and are suspicious of New Deal–like solutions — [wait for it…]  as, of course, they are entitled to be in a way that they are not on, for example, life issues. [Exactly!] Senator Kennedy had it exactly the wrong way around.

Kennedy’s death also brings the Church face-to-face once again with the fact that there is a massive problem of basic Catholic education — catechesis — among the faithful. So many Catholics — even some clergy[here it is again…] make an absolute out of prudential issues such as economic policy, while relativizing absolutes, such as abortion, euthanasia, and marriage. This is done in the face of clear, binding teachings from John Paul the Great, who said that no other right is safe unless the right to life is protected, or, as Pope Benedict wrote recently in Caritas in Veritate, that life issues must be central to Catholic social teaching. [Let us not forget Gaudium et spes 51:  "God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes."]

This also marks the passing of a certain type of cultural Catholicism — Northeast, Irish and increasingly Italian, concerned with obtaining political power while maintaining an identification with the Church, yet happy to relinquish the substance of the faith if it gets in the way. Indeed, today such cultural Catholics have dispensed even with the identity aspect and are often outright hostile to the Church of their baptism[Ain’t it da truth!]

I would like to think that the letter, reported to have been ten pages, that Ted Kennedy wrote and asked President Obama to hand to Pope Benedict early in the summer renders an account of his life before God and the Church. I certainly pray he died at peace, reconciled with the Church of his fathers, and in God’s merciful grace. And I shall pray for his eternal beatitude.

— Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and co-founder of the Acton Institute.

Fr. Sirico’s comments about cultural Catholics are apt indeed.  Rem acu tetigit.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. KAS says:

    I am very glad to have been able to read this well done obituary. I wish men like Senator Kennedy were properly Catholic in their work and defended life, but I am sad that it is not that way but the wrong way round. He could have died a truly great man instead of one whose legacy is that he supported abortion and other anti-life legislation on a consistent basis.

    May he rest in peace.

  2. GregH says:

    Father Zuhlsdorf,

    If you had been the priest at his deathbed hearing his confession, would you have brought up his voting record on abortion…gently indicating to him that he needed to repent? Or if he does not confess, do you not bring it up? I wonder how a priest goes about such things.

  3. GregH: I think I would have let him bring up everything he could think of first, without anticipating anything.

  4. lmgilbert says:

    Yesterday I prayed for the repose of his soul, and that is probably the only time I ever prayed for him in my life. You could say it’s a little late.

    We pray, endlessly it seems to me, to end abortion, and we have been praying that way since 1973. Perhaps that prayer is a little out of kilter. Maybe it isn’t large enough.

    Perhaps we should be praying with the same relentlessness for our own conversion and that of our rulers, and that of the country.

    I don’t recall any prayer campaign for the conversion of Ted Kennedy. I don’t recall ever being forcefully reminded from the pulpit that praying for our rulers is pleasing to God and brings down blessings from Heaven.

    May that has been happening and it went over my head.

    It’s very true that Ted Kennedy failed us, but we ought to consider the possibility that we failed him. People living at that level of power and influence need a lot of prayer. Did we, his fellow Catholics, give him that support?

    It’s nice to think that maybe some prayerful Catholics took Ted Kennedy under their wings to the extent that his recent arrival in Eternity had a happy outcome.

    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on us all!

  5. Thomas S says:

    Senator Kennedy is said to have worked very hard before his death to finish his soon to be published memoir. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it included his Mea Culpa. Unlikely, but the mysterious letter he sent to the Holy Father leaves a ray of hope, doesn’t it?

  6. Girgadis says:


    As I noted elsewhere (and never with the intention of patting myself on the
    back) I DO pray every day for Obama but particularly our Catholic vice president
    and speaker of the house that they will undergo conversion. I have also written
    to Sen. Robert Casey and to then Senator Joe Biden. I never got a response
    from the latter. As I see it, Catholic politicians, in particular those who
    are Democrats, are faced with what I call a St. Peter moment. In choosing to
    disobey the Church (and the Commandments) by voting in favor of abortion, they
    also choose to deny Christ at a most poignant time. I’m not one for using
    shame tactics personally but I would like to see a more concerted effort, lead
    by our shepherds, to bring these pols into the fold and have them realize how
    they are squandering the tremendous gift they received when they were confirmed
    into the faith and the evil they are acessories to when they vote for such
    so-called “rights” issues (gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research). I was
    struck by Father Sirico’s comment regarding the “dubious advice” Ted Kennedy
    was given by certain Jesuits. It leads me to wonder what the outcome might have
    been if the late senator sought advice from clergy who do not blur the line on
    moral issues, especially those concerning the right to life. Was it a matter
    of asking the wrong people, or of going from priest to priest until he heard
    the answer he wanted to hear? At any rate, I would like to ask those who read
    this blog to consider praying the chaplet to St. Michael, daily if you can, with
    the intention of bringing about the conversion of our wayward Catholic politicians.
    And also, please consider a letter campaign to Biden, Kerry, Sibelius et al
    reminding them that as Catholic politicians, they have an even greater
    responsibility to consider Christ’s teachings in their words and actions.

  7. Fr. John Mary says:

    I must concur with Fr. Sirico’s comment about the “certain type of cultural Catholicism — Northeast, Irish and increasingly Italian, concerned with obtaining political power while maintaining an identification with the Church, yet happy to relinquish the substance of the faith if it gets in the way.” I attended seminary in the Northeast (a very sound and good one)and taught there after my ordination. The present climate, from my perspective, is the “Kennedy brand” of Catholicism. Just refer to the Connecticut bishop’s acceptance of Plan B, the so-called rape treatment which in reality is abortifacient. Whether or not Catholics like the Kennedys are fully informed of the gravity of the immorality they have supported and/or encouraged we have to continue to be strong in our liturgical, moral and theological defense of Holy Tradition and pray for the conversion of all those “who do not adore, do not hope and do not love” Him (prayer taught by the Angel to the children of Fatima).

  8. TJM says:

    Many folks may not know this, but Senator Kennedy received his first Holy Communion from Piux XII. I think Pius XII would be the first to deny the Senator a Catholic burial on the basis of his very prominent, pro-abortion position. But “Go along to Get along” Cardinal O’Malley will likely cave in, slobber over Mr. Kennedy, and once again, show to young, American Catholic, pregnant girls, that the Catholic Church in the US merely pays lip-service to the Church’s teaching on abortion. Yawn. Tom

  9. TJM says:

    By the way, Father Sirico is one of my favorite commentators. He is very much in the camp of not giving the Democratic Party a pass simply because they claim that they love the poor (unless you are a poor unborn). Tom

  10. TJM: Above, Fr. Sirico is smart. He has a true grasp of the issues he chooses to address.

  11. lmgilbert says:

    Girgardis, All I can say is, that’s tremendous. But why the chaplet to St. Michael? I get the spirituality of it, the appeal to St. Michael in the face of demonic powers, but is this chaplet noted for bringing about conversions? Like all good Americans, I want something that works.

  12. TJM says:

    Father Z, I couldn’t agree more about Father Sirico. He didn’t give my alma mater, Notre Dame, a pass when they honored President Obama, the most-extreme pro-abortion President in US history. He should be a peritus to the USCCB, particularly in light of Archbishop Sheehan’s unfortunate rant in that regard in an article by John Allen published in the National Anti-atholic Reporter. Regards, Tom

  13. Agnes says:

    “I would like to think that the letter, reported to have been ten pages, that Ted Kennedy wrote and asked President Obama to hand to Pope Benedict early in the summer renders an account of his life before God and the Church. I certainly pray he died at peace, reconciled with the Church of his fathers, and in God’s merciful grace. And I shall pray for his eternal beatitude.”

    Me too. Maybe that letter was the exorcism.

  14. Thomas S says:


    Unless you have examples to back it up, give the “Go along to get along O’Malley” garbage a rest. Maybe a good place to start would be reading the Cardinal’s press release in response to the Senator’s death. It’s terse and barely above the level of acknowledging that the man died. Hardly “slobbering over Mr. Kennedy.”

    As for granting a funeral, canon lawyers have pointed out recently that it is canonically appropriate in light of Kennedy receiving a priest several times in his final days.

    Time to figure out who your friends are and who your enemies are, and stop sniping at the former. And here’s a hint: Cardinal O’Malley isn’t an enemy.

  15. GregH says:

    God Bless Cardinal O’Malley if warned Ted Kennedy in any way, shape or form about his support for abortion…but I never heard it.

  16. Tom Ryan says:

    I think Sirico made a point about cultural Catholicism that he may not have intended to.

    Kennedy grew up on devotions and practices that he didn’t completely understand and he held on to these tenuously as part of his identity when he had forsaken the substantive elements of Catholicism.

    It may have saved him in the end and it argues well for Benedict and his desire to reclaim a Catholic identity. What use is the apologetics of convert bloggers and radio hosts to someone who can’t be reached at a cerebral level? I think that if Kennedy had been born four decades later and grew up in the post V2 chaos on a steady diet of liturgical dance and felt banners he wouldn’t really care if he had a priest by his side at the hour of his death.

  17. TJM says:

    Thomas S, I suggest you hold your fire until you see what Cardinal O’Malley does. As I recall he NEVER once publicly (or privately to anyone’s knowledge)
    upbraided Kennedy or any other “Catholic” politician in Boston for their drooling support of abortion “rights.” The Cardinal may be orthodox but as far as I’ve seen so far he has not been a “Lion for the Faith” going after the “Liberal Lion of the Senate.” If I’m wrong, I will apologize. Tom

  18. TJM says:

    Thomas S, well, Cardinal O’Malley appears to be allowing Abortion King (Obama) to give a eulogy at Kennedy’s Funeral, in violation of Church law. Sigh. Tom

  19. irishgirl says:

    A clear and concise analysis from Fr. Sirico-I like the way he writes!

    And your comments, as usual, are on the money, Fr. Z!

  20. EXCHIEF says:

    It seems to me that in addition to his woefully immoral position on abortion there is another great harm that can trace back directly to Mr. Kennedy. IMO it was Kennedy’s lapses and the fact that he seemingly “got away with it” in the eyes of some U S Catholic Bishops, Archbishops and Cardinals that enabled the Pelosis, Bidens and Sebilius to act similarly. The lesson here, not yet learned I’m afraid, is that when the Church hierarchy by inaction lets one soul become publicly lost it leads to the loss of even more souls. That same inaction is what has caused Obama to think he can lie to the Church and no one will call him on those lies.

  21. Girgadis says:


    Perhaps you’ve seen the cards bearing the prayer to St. Michael on one side and his image on the other with the specific intention of the conversion of abortionists. The cards are part of a grass-roots, pro-life effort to seek St. Michael’s intercession. Since most of us already pray this prayer at least once daily, the chaplet is just another spiritual weapon we can use. Each prayer, addressed respectively to the nine choirs of angels, begs his intercession for God’s help in our on-going conversion. thanks.

  22. Thomas S says:


    How about ripping the entire Democrat Party on the front page of the Boston Globe and saying that voting for a pro-abort Dem would be scandalous and sinful?

    Since you clearly aren’t familiar with what Cardinal O’Malley does, maybe silence would be a fitting response.

    When did ignorance become an aceptable starting point for criticism, and when did the burden of proof shift to the unjustly accused?

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