There was a poignant footnote to President Obama’s historic July 10 meeting with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican. Behind closed doors in the papal library, Obama handed Benedict a letter that Senator Edward Kennedy had asked him to personally deliver to the pontiff. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later told reporters that nobody not even the President knew the contents of the sealed missive. Obama himself asked Benedict to pray for Kennedy, and called the ailing Senator afterward to fill him in on his encounter with the 82-year-old Pope.
The letter, most likely already re-sealed and tucked away in the Vatican archives, was probably just a dying Catholic’s request for a papal blessing. In the eyes of the traditionalist wing of the Church, however, Kennedy should have been asking the Pope for forgiveness. The Vatican’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano reported Kennedy’s death, praising his work on civil rights and fighting poverty, but noted that his record was marred by his stance on abortion. As of yet, unlike some other world leaders, Pope Benedict has not commented or issued an official communique in response to Kennedy’s death. One veteran official at the Vatican, of U.S. nationality, expressed the view of many conservatives about the Kennedy clan’s rapport with the Catholic Church: “Why would he even write a letter to the Pope The Kennedys have always been defiantly in opposition to the Roman Catholic magisterium.” Magisterium is the formal expression for the authority of Church teaching.
Since Kennedy’s death on Aug. 25, commentators have been poring over the Liberal Lion’s many legislative achievements and the details of his biography. But it is also worth remembering that for four decades Ted Kennedy remained the nation’s most prominent Roman Catholic politician, and brother of America’s first and only Catholic President. Ted Kennedy received his first communion directly from Pope Pius XII, and his marriage in 1958 was performed by Cardinal Francis Spellman, the influential Archbishop of New York. His mother, Rose Kennedy, once reportedly said that she’d dreamed that her youngest son Teddy would become a priest rather than a politician, destined to ultimately rise to bishop status.
Edward Kennedy, it can be said, was not cut out for the priestly life. His first marriage to former model Virginia Joan Bennett, ended in divorce in 1982, with the marriage annulled by the Roman Rota more than a decade later. And there are the infamous episodes in his life that showed a man not quite in control of his demons. But ultimately, beyond his personal travails, Kennedy’s relationship with the Church hierarchy was destined for conflict because of politics. The Senator became both the face and engine of the liberal wing of the Democratic party that has long led the battle for abortion rights, stem cell research and gay marriage, all of which Catholic doctrine strictly forbids.
“He is a complicated figure,” says Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and the culture editor of the Catholic magazine America. “Catholics on the right are critical because of his stance on abortion. Catholics on the left celebrate his achievements on immigration, fighting poverty and other legislation that is a virtual mirror of the Church’s social teaching.”
Back at headquarters, however, there is little room for nuance. “Here in Rome Ted Kennedy is nobody. He’s a legend with his own constituency,” says the Vatican official. “If he had influence in the past it was only with the Archdiocese of Boston and that eventually disappeared too.” Some say the final sunset on the Kennedy name within Catholic halls of power was the Vatican’s decision in 2007 to overturn the annulment of the first marriage of former U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy, the eldest son of Robert Kennedy. The successful appeal by Joe Kennedy’s ex-wife Sheila Rauch, an Episcopalian, was another blow for the Kennedy image in Catholic circles.
During Benedict’s 2008 trip to the U.S., there was some heated debate about whether or not Kennedy took Holy Communion at the papal mass at Nationals Stadium in Washington, with conservatives insisting that the Pope says the rite should be denied to pro-choice politicians. With this in mind, Church observers are keen to see if Boston’s Archbishop Cardinal Sean O’Malley will preside over Kennedy’s funeral.
In what may mark the final flicker of Kennedy influence in American Catholicism, reports circulated last spring that Obama was considering JFK’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, as the possible next U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican. That was not to be. Indeed in the wake of Uncle Ted’s death came word Thursday that Obama’s final choice had arrived in Rome to take up the diplomatic post at the Holy See. His name is Miguel Diaz, a little-known Cuban-born professor of theology firmly on the record as pro-life.
See Ted Kennedy’s top 10 legislative battles.
See TIME’s complete Ted Kennedy coverage.