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Voice of the Faithful


Kathleen Kennedy Townsend Speaks on Church Reform

By Diane Dugan

On a cool October night when the Fightin’ Phils were facing down the Dodgers in the game that would clinch the National League title, members of Voice of the Faithful/Greater Philadelphia and interested members of the public gathered in the Church on the Mall in Plymouth Meeting to meet with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former Democratic lieutenant governor of Maryland.

Since leaving office in 2003, Kennedy Townsend has served on a number of non-profit boards and currently is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Public Policy. Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), an international organization of 35,000 founded in 2002 in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal, had invited Kennedy Townsend to discuss some of the issues in her 2007 book, “Failing America’s Faithful: How Today’s Churches Are Mixing God With Politics and Losing Their Way.”

The eldest daughter of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy and a lifelong active Catholic, Kennedy Townsend began writing her book about seven years ago because, as she says, she had seen the relationship between church and politics change. Religion has come to be associated with the political right-wing, and by focusing so much on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research—which are “important, but not the only issues”—the Catholic Church has risked appearing “too partisan.”

She feels that the election of Barack Obama has helped the Catholic Church, explaining that the Vatican actually likes a lot of his positions (e.g., global poverty, climate change), and that he’s enormously popular in areas of the world where the Church wants to succeed. (A case in point is Africa, whose Catholic bishops just delivered a scathing denunciation of corrupt regimes in Angola and Uganda.)

“Reading the tea leaves” in her journeys around the world, Kennedy Townsend says, she perceives a shift going on in the Vatican, its recent aggressive bid for traditional Anglicans being what she calls a “desperate gasp.”

Kennedy Townsend was raised to believe in the importance of giving back, her parents often quoting St. Luke’s “To whom much has been given, much is expected.” She told of being taken to the Senate Rackets Committee hearings as a child when her father was investigating the corrupt Teamsters’ union, and the physical threats to her and her siblings as a result of his work. And she shared one of my favorite “Bobby” anecdotes: RFK speaking to a crowd of African-Americans in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King’s murder, about the pain of losing a beloved brother to a violent death, and the necessity of meeting violence not with more of the same, but “with love, and wisdom, and compassion.” While many American cities erupted in riots that night, there were none in Indianapolis. These and other experiences taught her two things, she says: that doing good often comes at great personal cost; and that our God must be one of compassion and love.

Kennedy Townsend spoke movingly of the critical importance of the Church throughout her life, not just in terms of spiritual consolation but also its long, admirable record in support of human rights and social justice. She acknowledged that “the Roman Catholic Church has had problems with me” because of her stands on various issues, denying her speaking engagements at Catholic schools in her home diocese of Baltimore. Professing herself a big supporter of VOTF and their work (their mission is “Keep the Faith; Change the Church”), she feels reform-minded Catholics need to focus on positives, citing current Church involvement in issues like health care, climate change and immigration.

Internally, however, there’s much work to be done. Kennedy Townsend made a comparison between the role of Poland’s Solidarity movement, which laid the groundwork for the eventual collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and that of the laity. The laity have a responsibility, she says, to create alternatives, such as the election of bishops and economic transparency. There are many ways to make a difference.

Two of the biggest mistakes the Church has made in recent times, Kennedy Townsend thinks, were the encyclical Humanae Vitae (banning the use of artificial contraceptives) and the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Both events had the unintended effect of making many faithful Catholics rebel. She closed by urging her audience to “write to the Pope! He’s been listening to the right wing; get him used to hearing from the left.”