Beliefs Politics

Commencement wars heat up with Ted Kennedy’s widow

RNS photo courtesy Pete Souza/The White House.

(RNS) A small Catholic college in Massachusetts has been pressured by the local bishop into cancelling an invitation to Sen. Ted Kennedy's widow to deliver the school's commencement address because of her support of abortion rights and gay marriage.

President Obama speaks with Vicki Kennedy, wife of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, in the Blue Room of the White House prior to signing the health insurance reform bill on March 23, 2010.

President Obama speaks with Vicki Kennedy, wife of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, in the Blue Room of the White House prior to signing the health insurance reform bill on March 23, 2010.

Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus also told officials at Anna Maria College last week that the school should not give Victoria Kennedy an honorary degree, diocesan spokesman Raymond L. Delisle said Monday (April 2).

McManus believes that Catholic institutions “should be honoring Catholics for their consistent public positions with the church, not for contrary positions with the church, especially on core issues such as the right to life and the sanctity of marriage,” Delisle said.

Kennedy is a lawyer and founder of Common Sense about Kids and Guns, a nonprofit organization that seeks to reduce gun deaths and violence among children. She has not been notably outspoken on abortion rights and gay rights, though her late husband was a prominent champion of those causes.

Commencement invitations often become a flashpoint in the Catholic Church’s culture wars – the controversy over President Obama’s 2009 address at the University of Notre Dame remains a sensitive subject – and a presidential election year only raises the stakes.

Kennedy, who was to have received an honorary degree in public administration, said in a statement that she was “disheartened” by the cancelation. She said that McManus had not responded to her invitations to discuss the matter, nor had the bishop spoken to her pastor.

“I am a lifelong Catholic and my faith is very important to me. I am not a public official. I hold no public office nor am I a candidate for public office,” Kennedy said. “Yet by objecting to my appearance at Anna Maria College he has made a judgment about my worthiness as a Catholic. This is a sad day for me and an even sadder one for the church I love.”

Kennedy said she understood the pressures faced by officials at Anna Maria College, a liberal arts school of about 1,100 students located in Paxton, Mass.

Anna Maria officials said in a statement to local media that they canceled the invitation after intense debate and with “deep regret.” The executive committee of the college’s Board of Trustees noted that “as a small, Catholic college that relies heavily on the good will of its relationship with the bishop and the larger Catholic community, its options are limited.”

Victoria Kennedy wrote an Op-Ed in The Washington Post in 2004 arguing against denying communion to pro-choice Catholics politicians, a position many bishops accept. 

Delisle said unnamed critics of Kennedy supplied McManus with “more local, Massachusetts-scene things where her position has certainly been public.” He did not elaborate on the items or the critics. He said that while Kennedy is not an elected or appointed official who bears responsibility for public policy decisions, “she is a public figure insofar as she certainly holds a position of public prominence.”

In 2010 Kennedy was given an honorary degree by Emmanuel College, a small Catholic liberal arts school in Boston, and there were no objections. “Vicki was a good choice. A great choice,” Sister Janet Eisner, the school’s president, told the Boston Globe. “I find it hard to believe in Massachusetts, in 2012, that this is happening.”

Patrick Whelan, a pediatric specialist at Harvard Medical School who is president of Catholic Democrats, said he had spoken with McManus, and described the bishop as “combative” about denying the invitation to Kennedy.

“I am not happy about this; it has put me in a very difficult position,” McManus told Whelan, who recounted the conversation to the Globe. “This is my decision and mine alone, and nobody’s pressuring me to do this,” McManus told Whelan. 


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • My great wonder is how anyone can “love” a church that is so evil. Remember the sex abuse and its cover-up? Remember Tim Dolan’s efforts to control women’s bodies and health? And Dolan and McManus are not alone. They take all their marching orders from Benedict at the Vatican just as all bishops must. If they veer off course, they’re fired like William Morris of Toowoomba, Australia.

    How can you submit to a church that tries to dictate your beliefs down to the dotted i’s and crossed t’s? How do you leave your minds, your souls, at the doors of your churches? Just enter, warm the pews, that the lay people paid and really belong to them, and “Pray, Pay, and Obey!” Pray by the numbers. Pay by the numbers. And obey by the numbers.

    The Catholic Church under John Paul II and Benedict has returned to its evil state of the Dark and Middle Ages. Pius XI and Trent, and Pius X and Vatican I, with its madness of infallibility, reign again. Even the collegiality that was trickily added to the madness of infallibility was promptly ignore, the same as John Paul II and Benedict have totally ignored Vatican II’s declaration of collegiality.

    Hopefully, papal reign will gradually become extinct as “the flock” decreases big time except in those areas like Central and South America and Africa where illiteracy reigns supreme. Numbers mean nothing–except in the collection baskets.

    The lay people are at fault, just as the voters in this country are at fault. They are the ones who allow these monstrous dictators to continue in their sick, ignorant, and criminal ways. Lay people can and should take over their own churches and act as boards directing all activities. Priesthood and the sacraments belong to the “People of God,” not just the clergy. For that matter, no “sacraments” but adult, mature Baptism and the Holy Communion have any scriptural base or meaning.

  • First I am not Catholic, but I commend the Bishop(s) on taking a Biblical stand. The two comments above are illustrative of a non-Biblical worldview that puts man’s wisdom before God and the Bible. And the tenor of the comments should cause both to question their relationship with God through Christ. Too many people think that they are going to heaven based on what they know about Jesus. But Christ made clear that doing the will of his father is what is required (Matt 7: 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’)

    Abortion is an affront to God. The Bible makes it clear that God knew us in the womb: “Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:4-5). In fact, the Bible makes clear that God knew us (for the Christian) before creation itself: Ephesians 1 4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—“

    Furthermore, it is insightful that the comments above support the un biblical views that gay marriage and abortion are OK, and that Church, by taking a stand consistent with God’s word, is evil. That is a very Satanic view, to be blunt. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and when the leaders of the Church take a stand consistent with God’s word, and consistent with Biblical principles, it is done out of love. The Church is called to hate the sin but love the Sinner. It does no one any good to condone sinful conduct, which will only condemn non-believers to hell. The ways of this world lead to destruction.‘

    The Bible makes clear that the wages of Sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:23). For Christ claimed to be “The way, the truth and the life, and that no one comes to father except through Him.” There are many ways to Christ, but only one way to God. Through Christ. Too many people know Christ like they know the President. But the problem is that they live a life that shows that Christ does not know them. You will be known by your fruits!