Speculation, the bane of political journalism, is even more out of place when it comes to covering religion. For instance: a piece by Jeff Israely about the late Ted Kennedy and the Catholic Church, posted on Time.com last Friday and revised as events proved Israely’s sources to be misguided.
Israely reported that, during the summer, President Obama delivered a letter from Kennedy to Pope Benedict XVI, the contents of which were secret, but which likely made the case for a papal blessing. Quoting conservative sources, Israely suggested that such a blessing was unlikely, given Kennedy’s pro-choice stand on abortion rights. Israely wrote:
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.”
As it turned out, the contents of Kennedy’s letter were revealed at a graveside service, as was the Vatican’s response. According to the Boston Globe:
The Vatican reply came two weeks [after Obama delivered Kennedy's letter]: “His Holiness prays that in the days ahead you may be sustained in faith and hope, and granted the precious grace of joyful surrender to the will of God our merciful Father.”…
The Vatican response was strikingly pastoral in tone, expressing the pope’s “concern and his spiritual closeness’’ to Kennedy, and bestowing on the senator an apostolic blessing from the pope. That the Vatican responded at all is news — conservative bloggers have for days been claiming that the alleged lack of a response was evidence of the Vatican’s antipathy to Kennedy.
Israely also indulged in speculation as to whether Cardinal Seán O’Malley would decline to preside over Kennedy’s funeral because of the late senator’s pro-choice policies. O’Malley didn’t preside — but the prominent role he nevertheless played would seem to prove that bit of speculation wrong as well.
To be sure, Israely wasn’t predicting the future so much as he was reporting the speculation of conservative church officials as to what might happen. But he still managed to leave the mistaken impression that the church would use Kennedy’s death to send a stern message to pro-choice politicians.
(Thanks to Steve Burgard, director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern, for helping me think this item through.)