In 1987, after President Ronald Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, the jurist went to pay his respects to Sen. Ted Kennedy, a powerful member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As the two men shook hands, Bork later recalled, the senator said quietly, “Nothing personal.” Kennedy subsequently denounced Bork’s constitutional philosophy from the Senate floor, igniting a firestorm of protests that derailed the appointment.
That brief exchange never surfaces in Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass, but it underscored his expectation that even political targets would sympathize with the necessity of balancing partisan tactics with personal values — and liberal ideology with Catholic doctrine. (Released less than a month after Kennedy died at age 77 on Aug. 25, the book is still near the top of The New York Times’ best-seller list.)
In hindsight, too, Kennedy never questions the habit of dualistic thinking that forged his “personally opposed” position on legal abortion: The memoir offers no explanation for his ferocious defense of Roe v. Wade. The mea culpas (Chappaquiddick aside) also are hard to find in his portrait of a wealthy, ambitious family that effectively branded itself the public face of the Catholic faith in America.
Many political and religious leaders who eulogized Kennedy — during and after a funeral that combined partisan rhetoric with Catholic piety — continue to defend and burnish the Kennedy legacy as the fulfillment of Christian social justice in action. Advocates of the Democrats’ pending health-care bills have invoked his name as a kind of benediction on their cause.
Yet this memoir portrays a deeply contradictory vision of Christian life and practical politics. Further, the senator’s detractors dispute the assumption that big-government programs and increased taxes constitute explicitly “Catholic” social policy, and some question whether such programs are the most effective and compassionate way to help people in need.
Thus, Kennedy’s memoir provides a timely opportunity to reassess his quasi-religious political commitments and their considerable impact on our understanding of the Catholic faith’s role in the public square.
“My faith, and the love of following its rituals, has always been my foundation and my inspiration,” Kennedy writes. “For almost fifty years, I have represented people who are facing injustice or pain. Life can be violent and grim, but I think of the Resurrection and I have a sense of hope.”
Throughout his lengthy narrative, Kennedy turns to the deep religious faith of his mother, Rose, and finds a wellspring of hope in moments of familial tragedy, personal regret and political reversals. The best passages portray the close bond he shared with his famous father and his adored older brothers.
The memoir is also notable for the trademark Kennedy excesses it chooses to ignore or shrug off. The author skirts the gossip that once attended the relationships his father and brothers had with Hollywood movie stars and other high-profile women.
The oversight is understandable. But the reader wishes the author had chosen to explain how he grappled with problems that tested family loyalty and religious beliefs. His narrative might have shed light on the origins of his own fractured sense of moral responsibility.
The memoir underscores Kennedy’s tendency to downplay moral lapses in “private” behavior while demonizing the intentions of those who resisted his political agenda.
This habit reflects the impact of a deeply politicized understanding of the Church’s temporal mission that gained traction after the Second Vatican Council: For many Catholic progressives, social change took priority over personal transformation. Pope John Paul II confronted this false dichotomy, noting that unjust social institutions and practices arose from sinful personal choices that gradually established a “culture of death.”
In one passage of rare transparency, the author does express regret for his undisciplined choices during his “bachelor” days. In 1991, his decision to invite two young relatives out for a late-night drink in Palm Beach on Good Friday ultimately led to a rape accusation filed against a nephew.
His regret primarily arises from an awareness that the “Palm Beach incident” weakened his ability to influence key political events, such as the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. “For the first time, my private life was viewed as impacting my public life,” he admits.
The successful confirmation of Thomas, a pro-life jurist likely to vote against Roe v. Wade, was a painful setback, but Kennedy stayed involved in subsequent battles over the appointment of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Relishing the memory of these charged ideological fights, Kennedy misses the irony of a “Catholic” legislator imposing a kind of religious test on Catholic jurists who threaten Roe v. Wade.
John F. Kennedy made his mark as the first Catholic president of the United States. He overcame anti-papist bigotry, in part, by pledging to isolate his political decisions from his faith. His only surviving brother recalls the heated questions about the family’s loyalty to Rome, but the reader, perusing his account almost half a century later, questions what insights the author actually gleaned at the knee of his older brother.
The senator identifies his faith as a formative influence on his social policy, and he articulates a principled opposition to the Iraq invasion based on just-war doctrine. But he departs from Church teaching on abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and same-sex “marriage.” Can a skeptic be blamed for doubting the purity of the senator’s motives when he celebrates liberal economic policies as the embodiment of Catholic social teaching?
In fact, the Church teaches that the development and advancement of economic policy arise from a prudential judgment about what constitutes the “good” for society; Catholics of good will are free to debate such matters.
While Christ in Matthew 25 exhorts his disciples to care for the poor and the sick, that responsibility has never been consigned to the paying of taxes. Some scholars even assert that large-scale government programs may violate the principle of subsidiarity, a key element of Catholic social doctrine that discourages bureaucratic solutions.
Finally, the Church’s social mission arises from an integrated vision of the human person rooted in a radical commitment to first principles: “You shall do no evil that good may come of it,” exhorts Thomas Aquinas.
Kennedy’s selective commitment to Catholic teaching — Yes to caring for the sick, No to defending unborn life — fails to grasp the tough Christian realism that governs much of the Church’s moral and social doctrine. Good intentions aren’t enough: The Church’s defense of moral absolutes, including its prohibition of abortion, establishes clear boundaries that protect human dignity.
Kennedy writes of his hope in the Resurrection, and calls on his fellow believers to support his vision of a better world. But if we follow his lead, and embrace a political agenda rife with moral contradictions, we are likely to produce something deeply unjust — and thereby lose our footing as disciples of Christ.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes
from Chevy Chase, Maryland.