It is tempting to view Ted Kennedy's passing as the end of an era, both politically and culturally, but also religiously -- the end of a reform-minded, socially oriented Catholicism that entered the mainstream in the 1960s and brought certain liberal values to the public square while remaining anchored, at times tenuously, to the religious (and ethnic) tradition that nurtured those values.
Certainly more than a few Catholic commentators would see it that way, assuring the Kennedys of their prayers while making it clear that they would shed no tears for the record Kennedy and his clan leave behind.
Yet conservatives shouldn't be too quick to bury the past and proclaim their own orthodoxy as the true heir of the American Catholic future. Surveys of young adult Catholics over recent years have shown that, in many respects, the younger generation resembles Kennedy's approach to faith and politics, with social justice and equality for women and gays as public markers of their religion, and devotion to the sacraments the lodestar of their private devotion.
The most comprehensive surveys of Catholics over the generations have been conducted by a team of sociologists led by Dean Hoge (who died in 2008), James Davidson and William D'Antonio. Starting in 1987, they polled American Catholics every six years, tracking the differences between the generations and changes within each generation over time. They compiled those findings in a 2007 book, "American Catholics Today: New Realities of Their Faith and Their Church." (You can read a summary in this 2005 report in National Catholic Reporter.)
There are obviously some generational differences that challenge the coherence of the Catholicism that formed Edward M. Kennedy and his eight siblings, of whom only Jean Kennedy Smith survives. Younger Catholics do not see religious practice through the lens of obligation, for example, and the institutional church is much less important to them. But that also holds true for Catholics across the generations.
The Catholic author and psychologist, Eugene Kennedy (no relation to the more famous namesakes), has spoken of "Culture One Catholicism" as a kind of pre-1960s mentality that stressed a unique Catholic identity, attachment to the church, the teaching authority of the bishops, and compliance with that authority. "Culture Two," he said, still emphasizes identity, but stresses the individual's responsibility for his or her own faith and the priority of individual conscience.
At a Georgetown symposium a couple of years ago to discuss the research in "American Catholics Today," Purdue's James Davidson noted that while 80 percent of Catholics before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the social upheavals of that generation would have been Culture One Catholics, the numbers would be reversed today. Across the board, 80 percent of Catholics would identify with Culture Two, and just 20 percent with the old way of being Catholic.
Ted Kennedy's own evolution from a pro-life to pro-choice Catholic in the early 1970s, for example, is emblematic of the wider Catholic shift rather than an exception. Similarly, his devotion to domestic concerns and the promotion of social justice -- the core of his extraordinary legacy -- very much mirrors that of other American Catholics, especially the younger generation. (Though Kennedy's sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died two weeks ago, remained pro-life even as she championed traditionally liberal causes.)
In one of the surveys, Davidson and Hoge et al presented Catholics with a list of 12 items and asked which were most important to them. "Helping the poor" and belief in the Resurrection topped the list, both at 84 percent, with the sacraments -- chiefly the Eucharist -- close behind at 76 percent, followed by the church's teaching on the Virgin Mary at 74 percent. Opposition to same-sex marriage (47 percent) and abortion (44 percent) were much further down, with priestly celibacy coming in last, with 29 percent saying it was important to them as Catholics.
"People in all the generations attach more importance to things like Incarnation, Resurrection, Real Presence, sacraments, concern for the poor, than they do to sexual reproductive issues or rules having to do with who is and who's not eligible for the priesthood," Davidson said. "So in some sense, there's a hierarchy of truth in the minds of these folks and that is true across generations."
In fact, Ted Kennedy himself summed it up well at a famous appearance in 1983 at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, as the fortunes of Reaganism and the Religious Right were rising. (CBN's David Brody has video and excerpts.)
"I am an American and a Catholic; I love my country and treasure my faith. But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society. I believe there surely is such a thing as truth, but who among us can claim a monopoly on it?" Kennedy said.
"People of conscience should be careful how they deal in the word of their Lord. In our own history, religion has been falsely invoked to sanction prejudice -- even slavery -- to condemn labor unions and public spending for the poor. I believe that the prophecy, 'The poor you have always with you' is an indictment, not a commandment."
That Kennedy would be invited by Falwell, and accept the invitation, was also a hallmark of his way of being Catholic, as it is of Catholics both left and right.
Some conservative Catholics have in recent decades made common cause with Evangelicals, for example. And that Falwell and Kennedy remained good friends was characteristic of Kennedy, who often worked across the aisle with the likes of Orrin Hatch and John McCain, among others, to promote policy achievements -- and the common good -- over doctrinaire policy principles.
As the late Dean Hoge (himself a Presbyterian) said of younger Catholics at the 2007 symposium, "This is not a sad story. These are the most intelligent, most broadly minded young Catholics we've ever seen...We should rejoice and we should bless them." Whether they will hang around for that blessing is the other question, however.
Kennedy's litany of personal failings and family tragedies seemed to drive home the fragility of life and the life of faith. Through divorce and remarriage and splits with the hierarchy over issues like legalized abortion and stem cell research and gay rights, Kennedy remained proudly Catholic. Few younger Catholics have experienced such pains and shames. Perhaps they will. Will such episodes bring them closer to the church -- or send them elsewhere?
The Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey showed Catholics still have about the best brand loyalty in the American religious marketplace, but they are also losing members to more non-denominational churches, and to the ranks of the unaffiliated. The emergence of progressive Catholic lobbies in the recent election cycles -- as we detailed here -- is in any case indicative of a thriving tradition of Kennedy Catholicism.
Some like to say that God has no grandchildren -- that each soul makes a choice for the faith on their own, or not. But sociologists know better. The formative years, family, and culture bequeath faith to the next generation. In her book, "Being Catholic Now," Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy's niece, writes movingly of the encompassing, breakfast-to-bedtime reminders of Catholicism in the bonds of prayers, Mass attendance, feast days, and of course tragedies: "The Church was simply part of our world, in the same way oxygen is required for breathing.''
As she herself went through various hegiras and travails -- she is divorced from New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, and the couple has two daughters -- Kerry Kennedy made her way back to the church of her forefathers and mothers, and her uncle. "I think it's reflective of my family's tradition," she told me a few months ago. "But I always am hesitant to talk about that because between the four generations alive today there are 75 people. So to talk about how Kennedys approach faith is very dangerous," she said with a laugh, flashing an unmistakably Kennedyesque smile. "We can argue with each other as much as anyone. Which I think is healthy."
Indeed, the Camelot of Catholicism sounds a lot like most every other Catholic clan. And that means the real harbinger of the American Catholic future -- and the spiritual legacy of the Kennedys -- may be found in the generation Ted Kennedy leaves behind.