By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Unwarranted speculation

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 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.)

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  1. mike_b1

    The catholic church has become a one-note body. Resting an entire religion on an anti-abortion platform is a fool’s errand. It’s long cast time to tax the snot out of them.

    • Dan Kennedy

      mike_b1: You seem to be reacting to what speculated the church would do rather than what actually happened.

  2. Dan – I’m glad you’ve called this out. It was an embarrassing piece of journalism, especially since he added unobtrusive “updates” where they ought to have issued an outright “correction.” And today’s follow-up article from Israely is just as bad. I wrote about them both here, on Commonweal’s blog.

  3. Michael Pahre

    Nice point on the subtlety here. I had been confused over the weekend about the conflict between’s piece and the letters read at the Arlington burial.

    Quoting an anonymous source speculating about someone else’s behavior generally ought not to pass the news threshold. You usually quote an inside source for the informational value that you cannot get elsewhere, not for that person’s speculation without corroboration that you could get most anywhere.

  4. newshound

    Senator Kennedy wrote a nice letter to the Pope and the Pope sent an appropriate response.

    Senator Kennedy, like everyone else, should be the ultimate judge of their own religion. It appears that is what was respected by the Catholic Church. What I understood is that he declared he was human, but still a Catholic.

    That apparently was good enough. And good enough is really good.

  5. O-FISH-L

    Dan, I thought I first raised the issue of the open conflict between Sen. Kennedy’s behavior and his purported faith. I had urged the Globe, replete with awards for Catholic bashing, to bash the church again if Kennedy was feted. The Globe listened and had a small mention, but kudos to Jeff Israely for expanding.

    In the aftermath of Kennedy, the faithful are more wounded than even after the gay priest scandals. Of course the MSM won’t go near this story. For the faithful to witness 77 years of debauchery and disrespect for human life be condoned at the last minute was repugnant.

    As the saying goes, “those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.” I couldn’t bring myself to church this past Sunday.

    The hearse with no plate was priceless too. Above the law, even in death.

  6. Peter Porcupine

    DK – one thing that annoys me about this (caveat – I am not a Roman Catholic). The Archdiocese headed by now-Cardinal O’Malley stripped Catholic lay leaders Rep. Barbara L’Italien and Rep. Shirley Gomes of their ministries for pro-choice votes. Both parties, both women. Yet this same man presides at Kennedy’s funeral. Same votes, but a man.

    A lack of intellectual consistancy.

  7. mike_b1

    PP, as you know, the Catholic church is not a female-friendly place. It can’t help that the best-known Catholic woman of the past 100 years, Mother Teresa, doubted there was/is a god. This is based on her personal writings and confidants, all of which came to light after her death. (In essence, she was the byproduct of a Vatican marketing campaign.)

    Speaking as someone who attended eight years of parochial school, the gap between what is practiced and what is preached is ghastly. At my former church, we specialized in drunken priests, priests
    who had affairs, and nuns who literally beat children (in one remarkable instance, a sister tossed a seventh-grader into a wall). And that was a moderate diocese! It was quite a place.

    O-Fish, what’s “repugnant” is spending your life blindly following a faith without recognizing that your religion is founded on, among other things, compassion and forgiveness.

  8. bill ricker

    A technicality – Cardinal Sean was not the _Celebrant_ of the mass, but did _Preside_. He had hardly any apparent role in the service, aside from his intrinsically colorful presence, but according to WBUR’s well-informed live commentary he was as ranking hierarch present stationed just aside the altar and was the _Presiding_ cleric, meaning having oversight, and thus was the first person besides the Celebrant and his Eucharistic assistants to be given the Eucharist. When there is only one priest, or the senior priest is Celebrating the mass himself, the two roles merge — which is the typical Parish Sunday; not so in Cathedrals and major Basilica.

    The fact that the Redemptionist Fathers who run the Mission Church (and School?) report primarily to their order and effectively subsidize the Arch Diocese by running a Parish at their Mission has been ignored by those complaining of inconsistency. Has the Cardinal more control over the Our Lady Mission Church parish than threat of requesting they turn the parish over to diocesan priests he doesn’t have and diocesan maintenance budget he doesn’t have? The religious orders such as the Redemptionists, the Jesuits at BC, and Opus Dei (not involved here) all have their own direct line to Rome. They subsidize the local Diocese by their presence. It may be no coincidence that speaking roles were given to a Redemptionist father and Jesuit father, and several laity.

    Those faithful who don’t like the Diocesan party line are welcomed by the various orders, by the Anglicans, the Episcopalians, the Orthodox, and the various other New Catholic denominations (and even by the protestants, Buddists, and UU’s too).

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