RFK's faith three-dimensional in books, but two-dimensional on screen

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Kennedy King Memorial Initiative

By Mark Pattison

NEW YORK (CNS) — By all accounts,
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, shot down June 5, 1968, as he ran for the Democratic
presidential nomination, was the most devout Catholic among his siblings.

former altar boy who sometimes spoke of joining the priesthood, Kennedy’s
faith, drawn inward after the 1963 assassination of his older brother the
president — and somehow not diminished by a growing belief in existentialism
— informed his political views and his compassion for the poor.

good elements for a TV or film biography, right? So far, apparently not.

the 44 years since the somber TV docudrama “The Missiles of October” created a
sensation with actors, and not impressionists, using the famous family’s
idiosyncratic accent to bring the Kennedys to dramatic life, it’s been mostly
campaign rallies and White House corridors for Robert, the former attorney
general and U.S. senator from New York.

a moment in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it category: In the 1985 TV miniseries
“Robert Kennedy and His Times,” based on Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s 1978
biography, Kennedy’s mother, Rose (Beatrice Straight), on a windswept beach at
Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, tells Robert (Brad Davis) after the assassination
of President Kennedy, “It’s up to you now to lead us forward.”

clutching a rosary. That’s it for Catholicism.

new Netflix documentary series, “Bobby Kennedy for President,” has a brief clip
of the senator at an outdoor Mass for striking immigrant farm workers in
California — and nothing else.

who was just 42 when he was assassinated in Los Angeles, came of age long
before Washington politicians proclaimed their adherence to any particular
faith. And Protestant opposition in 1960 to John F. Kennedy as the first
Catholic president was a very large and well-organized force.

the younger Kennedy likely would have considered it unseemly to announce in
speeches, as House Speaker Paul Ryan has done from time to time, that any of
his political philosophy was rooted in Catholic social doctrine.

for TV and film dramatizations, they are necessarily stuffed with political
pageantry and a cast of oversize characters that includes Sen. Joseph McCarthy,
President Lyndon Johnson, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and FBI director J.
Edgar Hoover. Rich opportunities for colorful speeches and hammy character
actors don’t leave room for quiet moments of reflection and Catholic

the next go-round of biopics (and with Kennedy family lore, there’s invariably
a next go-round) may finally give fuller dimensions to Robert Kennedy’s life.
Recent biographies have dived into his faith, and as they’re adapted into
dramas, the Catholic elements should be folded into those as well.

problematic element in the writing of these profiles is the divide that has grown
ever deeper, in the years since Kennedy’s death, between social (as opposed to
economic) liberalism and Catholic teaching. Since Kennedy was and is a towering
figure for the left, authors celebrating him seem uncomfortable portraying
Kennedy as straightforwardly pious.

are samplings from a couple of new biographies:

— Larry
Tye, “Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon” (Random House,

writes that, following JFK’s assassination, “religion helped, too, but on
his terms, not the church’s. He kept a missal beside him in the car and thumbed
through to prayers he found consoling. Instead of attending Mass mainly on Sundays and days of obligation, as
had been his adult routine, he was in the pew nearly every day. His faith
helped him internalize the assassination in a way that, over time, freed
his spirit.”

best religious anecdote, related by former Kennedy aide John Seigenthaler,
centered on a 1964 discussion Bobby and wife Ethel had with Holy Cross Father
John Cavanaugh, a former president of the University of Notre Dame, about
whether President Kennedy was in heaven or purgatory, since he wasn’t able to confess
his sins before he died.

wanted an assurance that John was in heaven, but Cavanaugh, Tye writes,
“equivocated.” Finally, Bobby spoke up: “I don’t think that’s
how God gets his kicks.”

— Chris
Matthews, “Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit” (Simon & Schuster, 2017).

colorful MSNBC host, also the product of a bumptious Catholic upbringing,
concludes that Bobby was not only the most religious of the Kennedy children,
but also the “least assimilated.”

up, Bobby “couldn’t help but reveal himself if circumstances evoked
it,” Matthews writes. He once fired off an angry letter to Boston’s archbishop,
Cardinal Richard Cushing, complaining about a priest, believed to be
anti-Semitic, who had interpreted too strictly the doctrine that outside the
church there is no salvation.

includes the wry comment made by Jacqueline Kennedy during the 1960 campaign,
and reprinted many times since then: “I think it’s so unfair of people to
be against Jack because he’s a Catholic. He’s such a poor Catholic. Now, if it
were Bobby, I could understand it.”

also left St. Paul’s, a Protestant New Hampshire boarding school, after just
two months because both he and his mother disliked its exclusive use of the
King James Bible.

for Catholic social teachings, Matthews writes that Bobby, long before he began
his presidential campaign, “drew upon an old reservoir … illuminated by
Dorothy Day and Michael Harrington.”

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Jensen is a guest reviewer for
Catholic News Service.

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