Many people don't know this about Ted Kennedy, but he was very nearly as pious as his older brother Robert. Ted attended Mass every week, in some cases, such as during Kara's bout with lung cancer, every day. At his mother's funeral, he made mention of her "greatest gift" which was "faith."
Jack took his Catholicism with a cool distance, though never flinched in his loyalty. Robert, on the other hand, did his religion the same way he did everything else--wholeheartedly and passionate. Bobby was a Catholic every which way, from fasting with Cesar Chavez, to attending Mass, to having a big Catholic family. He once stepped into the theater at the Kennedy compound where the cousins were watching a movie. When he saw a racy scene, he ordered the projectors stopped and ran the kids out.
Robert and Ted--in fact, the entire family--represent the Vatican II, social justice tradition within Roman Catholicism, a tradition which is thoroughly Catholic, open and engaging with the world, and committed to the basic equality and human dignity of all. Ted Kennedy himself expressed this tradition in a speech at Liberty University some years ago:
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?.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.
For the last forty years, the heirarchy of the Roman church has continually whittled away at the Vatican II reforms. Right now, American nuns are being called on the carpet in two investigations because, basically, the heirarchy thinks they're too liberal--too in the spirit of Vatican II. The conservative, more institutionally oriented Catholics, have cheered this retrenchment while the social justice wing has largely ignored it and kept on with what they were already doing.
What has been the result? American Catholics are more liberal than ever. Gibson notes a recent study in which American Catholics cited "helping the poor" and belief in the Resurrection as the two traditions of Catholicism that were most important to them. Purdue Prof. James Davidson says that 80% of American Catholics identify with Vatican II.
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.
This is true outside of America as well. Liberation theology continues to have influence in Latin America, for example, which is home to nearly half the Roman Catholics in the world. Catholic Spain now has gay civil unions, and even the staunchly-Catholic Poles think priests ought to be able to marry. Vatican II is not dead, not by a long shot. It is (still) the Catholicism of the future.
This clip, incidentally, is classic Kennedy.