The Kennedys Versus the Church

Fifty years after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Americans are still enthralled with all things Kennedy. There has been an endless stream of books, articles, and front-page tabloid headlines. And when a Kennedy speaks out on Catholic doctrine, the mainline media treats their pronouncements as ex cathedra.

The latest such pronouncement came from the president’s daughter, Caroline, at the 2012 Democratic Convention: “As a Catholic woman, I take reproductive health seriously, and today it is under attack.” The attack this abortion supporter was referring to was the objections by the Church and other religious institutions to Obama’s attempt to force them to provide contraception and abortion-inducing drugs in insurance plans.

Far from being something new, the family’s rocky relationship with the Church goes back almost a hundred years.

David Nasaw’s excellent new book, The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy, describes how the familys founding father treated the Church like one of his subsidiary companies.

Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969) was a Boston-Irish rogue. After Bostons Anglo-Saxon Brahmins snubbed him at Boston Latin and Harvard University, he was determined to make a great fortune and to make himself or one of his sons the first Catholic president of the United States.

He worked day and night and was successful as a banker, Hollywood studio head, real estate broker, liquor distributor, and Wall Street operator. Rules of fair play, he believed, did not apply to him and he often skated on the edge of the law.

During the Great Depression when President Franklin Roosevelt was blasted for appointing him as the founding chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, F.D.R. is reputed to have said, “It takes a thief to catch one.”

To enhance his public image and political power, Joe shamelessly exploited the Church. When he married Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of a former Boston mayor, Boston Cardinal William O’Connell was persuaded to officiate.

When the Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli (later Pius XII), visited America 1936, J.P.K. leaned on Bishop Francis Spellman to bring Pacelli to his Rockefeller Center office for a visit and later for high tea at his Bronxville home. He also arranged for a private rail car to take the Cardinal to Hyde Park to visit F.D.R. Publicly, J.P.K. portrayed himself as the power broker who brought together the future pope and president.

After a less than stellar stint as Ambassador to the Court of St. James (J.P.K. supported Chamberlain’s appeasement policies prior to World War II),  he had no hope of achieving high public office and transferred his ambitions first to his eldest son Joseph, Jr. and after his death in the war, to Jack.

           Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.

To grease the way for his son’s political career, J.P.K. gave millions to Catholic causes and institutions. Numerous  pictures in the press showed Jack Kennedy presenting checks from the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation to clergy in Boston, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and Chicago. 

In return, J.P.K. expected the Church to get behind his son’s presidential ambitions, regardless of J.F.K.’s public stances.

On the road to the White House, J.F.K. opposed federal aid to parochial schools on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and told Look magazine “that religion is personal, politics are public and the twain need never meet and conflict.”

Catholic media throughout the nation, including the Jesuit-run journal America, slammed J.F.K. for pandering to Protestant bigots. The publication of the Holy Cross Fathers, Ave Maria, noted: “No man may rightfully act against his conscience. To relegate your conscience to your ‘private life’ is not only unrealistic, but dangerous as well…because it leads to secularism in public life.”

Appalled that the Church did not give Jack carte blanche, J.P. K. wrote to a friend in the Vatican, “I am really more than annoyed or upset – I am downright disgusted! . . .I deplore the pettiness of the Catholic Press and I deplore the weakness of some of the hierarchy for not speaking out, at least in some measure in Jack’s defense. . . .My relationship with the Church will never be the same and certainly, never the same with the hierarchy.”

And it wasn’t. Publicly, the Kennedys patronized the Church, but privately they helped create a shadow church of religious laymen and clergy who helped them rationalize their own version of Catholicism.

The Catholic pro-abortion movement, for instance, was hatched at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port. In the summer of 1964, Bobby and Ted Kennedy met at the Cape with some leading dissident priests – Robert Drinan, Richard McCormick, Joseph Fuchs, and Charles Curran – to figure out how Catholic politicians could pander to the growing abortion movement without upsetting their Catholic constituencies. 

According to one witness, the theologians “concurred on certain basics. . .that a Catholic politician could in good conscience vote in favor of abortion.” The action plan developed that week in Hyannis Port, in sociologist Anne Hendershott’s judgment, contributed to effectively neutralizing the Catholic laity and “helped build the foundation for the [Democratic] party’s reincarnation as the party of abortion.”

New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor, criticized a 1984 letter signed by pro-abortion Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, concerning Catholics for a Free Choice because it contained “some things about abortion relevant to Catholic teaching which are not true.” Senator Edward Kennedy went ballistic, suggesting that anyone who opposed Ferraro was a bigot. He accused Archbishop O’Connor of “blatant sectarian appeals” and argued that not “every moral command” could become law.

Ted Kennedy also scuttled the late Robert Bork’s nomination to the  Supreme Court with scurrilous charges of racism and other slanders because Bork was perceived as pro-life.

The Kennedy’s shadow church has damaged Catholic standing in the public square and has given cover to the likes of Mario and Andrew Cuomo, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Dick Durbin, and Nancy Pelosi. 

All in all, a sad legacy for a family that American Catholics once put on a pedestal.


George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.