Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Pope's Response to Ted Kennedy's Letter: Pro Forma

Many American Catholics followed the daylong funeral and burial rites for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy looking for signs of the ongoing struggle between the traditionalist and liberal wings of their Church. The passing of the most notable U.S. Catholic politician of his generation seemed to be a perfect catalyst for such ecclesiastical drama.

Some traditionalists hoped (in vain) that Kennedy, a longtime abortion and gay "marriage" supporter, wouldn't even be allowed a Catholic funeral. Others hoped (also in vain) that Boston's Archbishop, Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who has declared that voting for pro-choice Catholic politicians "borders on scandal," would sit out the Saturday funeral. Though the main celebrant was former president of Boston College Rev. Donald Monan, a Jesuit and longtime Kennedy family friend, O'Malley was there to give the final commendation at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica.

But what has been one of the most discussed gestures of a tightly choreographed day came at the Arlington National Cemetery evening burial service. Retired Washington Archbishop Cardinal Theodore McCarrick read excerpts from a private letter Kennedy wrote to Pope Benedict XVI — hand-delivered in July by President Obama — and portions of the Vatican response to Kennedy two weeks later. After making no public comment nor authorizing an official communique after Kennedy's death, was the Pope publicly reaching out to this controversial Catholic politician? According to both Vatican and U.S.-based Church officials, the answer is no.

McCarrick himself noted at the brief final rite of committal and prayer that the reading was an idea he and Kennedy's widow Victoria had agreed to, apparently using a copy of Kennedy's letter that the senator had kept. The subsequent response from a papal aide offering Benedict's prayers for his health, according to a veteran ambassador to the Holy See, was likely of a pro forma nature. Such letters are typically handled either by the office of the sostituto, the No. 2 official in the Secretary of State's office or by the Pope's private secretary. "It's very rare to have a letter with the Pope's own signature," says the diplomatic source. In any case, coming in July, it was clearly not a response to Kennedy's death.

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