Kennedy, O'Malley & Benedict XVI

05aa1_pope_benedict_xviFacts are such picky, provocative things. Soon after the story broke about the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, I noted:

Only God and his father confessor ... have any right to claim inside information about the state of his soul and neither will be granting interviews. ... It will be interesting to note the role of the hierarchy in his funeral Mass.

Since then, we have seen quite a few interesting and valid details added to the public image of Kennedy and his faith. The mainstream message (check out CNN) has been that Kennedy was an active Roman Catholic in every way that the family could make public, including verbal images that most would interpret as descriptions of the senator meeting with a priest for a final confession before last rites. There have been very few hard questions (noted MZ).

But facts as such pesky things. What is the local prelate saying about this most famous member of his flock? In a Boston Globe report we learn:

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, who blogged affectionately about Kennedy's sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, after her recent death, has declined requests for interviews about Kennedy. He has issued only a cautious written statement, saying "we mourn the passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy" and describing the senator as "often a champion for the poor, the less fortunate, and those seeking a better life." But O'Malley has been sharply critical of Catholic Democrats who support abortion rights, and has said that for Catholics to vote for such politicians "borders on scandal."

As I have noted here and elsewhere, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was an articulate and consistent defender of the Catholic doctrines on the sanctity of all human life. She was both a strong Democrat and a consistent, orthodox Catholic.

But there's more. It appears that Time magazine is willing to pursue hard news online, even if factually-driven news reporting is out of style in the news weeklies at this point in time. Thus, picky facts have raised debates about Kennedy's public and private faith a much higher level.

Check out the story under this headline, "After Kennedy's Death: Silence from the Pope." The lede focuses on the private letter that Kennedy recently sent to Benedict XVI, with President Barack Obama serving as the middle man.

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."

This story includes many interesting details, including the fact that -- early in his life -- Edward 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 devout mother hoped he would become a priest and then a bishop. That brings us to one of the most striking understatements in the coverage of this larger-than-life politico, backed by many familiar facts:

Edward Kennedy, it can be said, was not cut out for the priestly life.

CardinalO'MalleyBut the bluntest information comes at the end in what must be one of the most gripping negative quotations that has slipped into the mainstream media during this time of mourning inside the Washington, D.C., beltway. Brace yourselves:

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." ...

During Benedict's 2008 trip to the U.S., there was some heated debate (with conflicting photographs and eyewitness accounts) 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.

Yes, that is a crucial question. For several decades, Ted Kennedy has defined the majority stance of American, as opposed to Roman, Catholicism -- serving as the living incarnation of the cafeteria-Catholic faith of the left (and yes, as a Democrat I am well aware that there are politically conservative Republican Catholics who choose to eat in their own doctrinal cafeteria).

If Boston's cardinal takes part in the service, it will be important for journalists to note what he says. My prediction? O'Malley will be there and he will enthusiastically salute the recently departed Eunice Kennedy Shriver, as well as praise some of the actions of Ted Kennedy. He may even read a carefully worded statement from the pope.

It will be quite a high-wire performance, if the cardinal chooses to risk it. Obviously, officials in Rome will be paying close attention. Journalists should pay attention, as well.

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