Q&A: Ted Kennedy Biographer Adam Clymer on Kennedy's Catholicism

A Kennedy expert says the senator's faith was the most important early factor in shaping his politics.

By + More

By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

I spoke with Ted Kennedy biographer Adam Clymer, former chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, about the influence of Kennedy's Roman Catholicism on his life and career:

Some obituaries today are calling Ted Kennedy a devout Catholic. How important was his faith to him personally?

It meant a great deal to him. A friend of his told me how painful it was for him not to take [Holy Communion] between the time he got divorced and an annulment. He and [second wife] Vicki would often go to noontime mass if things were slow at the Capitol. I once asked him why someone as well off as him was so interested in the poor and the sick, and he said it was his mother's Catholic teaching: the Sermon on the Mount and the passage from Luke that to those who much is given, much is expected.

So you think his Catholicism shaped his politics?

I wouldn't say it's the only factor, but it's the earliest one. I mean, his mother made sure her children went to church and Sunday school and on summer retreats when they would rather be doing something else. How long did it take for Kennedy to get his first marriage annulled?

Between the divorce and the annulment, there was about 10 or 11 years. They never really announced when the annulment was granted. We all became aware of it when [Kennedy] took [Holy Communion] from Cardinal [Bernard] Law at his mother's funeral in '95. But the divorce was in 1982. Was Kennedy someone who talked openly about his faith?

He didn't wear it on his sleeve. He didn't talk about it much, and in all of his autobiographical writings he never once wrote that it meant a great deal to him. He gave the eulogy when his mother died, and there was a wonderful story he told about taking her to church in the years before she died. The nurse had told him that his mother would get tired and that he couldn't keep her there for the full two hours, that she had to come home after an hour. But when he would tell her its time to go, she said, "Shhh—it's not over yet."

Beyond stories like that, why do you think Kennedy didn't talk much about his faith?

He didn't need to. He had Massachusetts regardless of that, and I think he was just brought up that way. His brothers didn't, and you add a little New England to it—people just don't wear their religion on their sleeves there. Did you get a sense for how he squared his Catholic beliefs with his support for abortion rights after Roe v. Wade ?

He said he'd been convinced by the court's logic, but I don't know any more than that.

  • Follow Dan Gilgoff on Twitter.
  • Read more about Barack Obama.
  • See photos of Ted Kennedy throughout his life.