Kennedy Worship and Celebrity Priests: Peeling ‘The Onion’ of Cults of Personality


There’s a wickedly clever piece from the satire site “The Onion” circulating around called “FBI Raids Kennedy Fundamentalist Compound.”

Click here to read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt:

“‘At approximately 4:15 a.m., federal agents entered the Kennedy premises, apprehending numerous individuals and charging them with multiple counts of attempting to infiltrate the government at federal, state and local levels,’ said lead investigator Frank Campbell, adding that the groups steadily expanding network of members has used the compound as a base from which to extend its power for decades. ‘Our investigation indicates that several charismatic leaders within the sect manufactured an intense cult of personality that, over the years, they have used to hold sway over many thousands of followers nationwide.’

“‘It appears that the people at the top of this structure possessed a near -pathological desire to exert control over others and manipulate their beliefs,’ he continued. ‘These are ideologues, plain and simple. To the many people who got caught up in this so-called family, these individuals’ power of persuasion was irresistible.”

To date, John F. Kennedy is our only Catholic president, and such a matinee idol he was! Handsome, from one of those sleek, outdoorsy families that always seem to populate Ralph Lauren ads, lovely wife at his side, adorable children at his feet, he presented a perfect picture for the new decade of the Sixties. A lot of people invested huge amounts of hope in the transformative power of a Kennedy presidency, until an assassin cut it short.

We all know the Kennedy saga from there: the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the endlessly electable Massachusetts Sen. Teddy Kennedy (despite his highly suspect actions after the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in the waters off Chappaquiddick Bridge, followed by lots of drinking and womanizing), followed by the Kennedy women, the cousins, the children, the grandchildren and on and on and on.

Now, political dynasties are nothing new, but this one belongs to Catholic America, which embraced JFK, overlooked his many personal peccadilloes — his private life always stood in stark contrast to his public piety — and proceeded to accord him a place of honor on the walls of many family homes, right next to the pope and the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Despite growing up in an Irish-Catholic family, I was raised blessedly free of Kennedy worship. But partly because of observing it in others, I’ve acquired a deep distrust of cults of personality, from charismatic politicians to mesmerizing gurus (whether of the spiritual, athletic or economic type). In recent years, that unease has expanded to include celebrity priests, some of whom have had distressingly public falls from grace, whether it’s the puzzling downward spiral of Father John Corapi or the unspeakable perversity of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

These men did–and still do– have their defenders, and that’s no surprise. No matter what information comes to light about the Kennedys, the romance of “Camelot” refuses to fade. One hallmark of a cult of personality is that the personality at the center of it stops being a just a person. People have feet of clay, flaws, weaknesses, make mistakes, fall on their faces and come up short. But when a person becomes a cult figure, their virtues are exaggerated, their vices are explained away or glossed over, and layers of gauzy glory are wrapped around them to obscure the reality of their humanity.

Worship is due only to God. There is not, never has been, nor will there ever be, a human being worthy of worship. Respect, love, admiration, veneration, of course, but not worship.

Many years ago, self-proclaimed neopagan “Druid” Isaac Bonewits came up with the “Cult Danger Evaluation Frame,” a checklist with a sliding scale to help people realize if the religious group they belong to has tipped over into a dangerous cult. Obviously, you have to consider the non-Christian source — especially in reference to sexual ethics and behavior — but some of the items on the list are insightful (emphasis in italics is mine).

For example:

  • Wisdom/Knowledge” credited to leader(s) by members, amount of trust in decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations made by leader(s); amount of hostility by members towards internal or external critics and/or toward verification efforts.
  • Sexual Favoritism: Advancement or preferential treatment dependent on sexual activity with the leader(s) of non-tantric groups.
  • Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating with non-members, including family, friends and lovers.
  • Paranoia: Amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; exaggeration of perceived power of opponents; prevalence of conspiracy theories.
  • Grimness: Amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
  • Hypocrisy: Amount of approval for actions which the group officially considers immoral or unethical, when done by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s); willingness to violate the group’s declared principles for political, psychological, social, economic, military, or other gain.

Bonewits developed this checklist because it’s common in the free-form neopagan movement to have groups spring up around charismatic leaders, some of whom exploit followers for their personal satisfaction or gain.

But this is not at all unique to these folks;  it’s a general human failing and weakness. And it’s a big reason why the Catholic Church in particular is slow to recognize saints, slow to approve of apparitions, and generally allergic to cults of personality — but that doesn’t mean we’re not as susceptible to them as anyone else.

In a great 2011 blog post called  “Catholics and the Cult of Personality,” Julie Davis, a k a “Happy Catholic,” examines the case of another rock-star priest, Father Tom Euteneuer, who left as the head of the pro-life Human Life International in the wake of a sexual scandal and other allegations.

She counsels Catholics to pray for anyone defending the Faith in the public eye then cautions, “The danger of putting people on pedestals is that they will almost always fall. Truly, the only pedestal that matters is on Mount Calvary. And the person on it will never, ever fall from grace.”

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

A native of the Adirondacks and Saratoga Springs in northern New York State, journalist and fiction writer Kate O'Hare now lives in Los Angeles, where she's on a neverending quest to find a parish in the L.A. Archdiocese with orthodox preaching, excellent traditional music and parking.

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