But that was 1979, and like everybody else, the daughter of privilege and the son of power lived their marriage in the real world, and somewhere, amidst the birth of their twin sons, his successful run for Congress, and her growing belief that her knight in shining armor held her in about as much esteem as the mud on his spurs, it just fell apart. The divorce in 1991 was bad enough, but then came the petition for annulment in 1993. Kennedy, whose family is almost as famous for its Catholicism as for its wealth and political savvy, wanted to remarry, and he wanted to do it in the church. The only way to make that happen was by seeking a formal annulment - a ruling declaring that his first marriage was void in the eyes of Rome.
Church officials call it an Ecclesiastical Declaration of Nullity. In her new book, Shattered Faith, Sheila Rauch Kennedy, 44, describes it another way: as an attack on her family and a brutal and insensitive effort to expunge a marriage she had entered in good faith.
``My concern,'' writes Rauch Kennedy, ``was for my children's moral development . . . were the church to declare my children the offspring of a marriage that had never existed, it would be abdicating its sacred and historical role to protect and promote their moral well-being.''
Now she's prepared to appeal the Archdiocese of Boston's decision last October to grant her husband's petition for nullification of their 12-year marriage - all the way to the Rota, the Vatican's highest court.
While it's possible that her decision to appeal the annulment may have inspired another former political wife, Julia Thorne, to issue her own criticism of the nullity being sought by her ex-husband, U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the process isn't likely to be a cakewalk.
Rauch Kennedy, an Episcopalian who writes that she never agreed to convert and ``never promised to raise the children Catholic,'' must confront centuries of complex church law.
In the end, the success of her appeal may hang on the subtle difference between the common perception of a nullification and the church's more legalistic interpretation of what annulment does and does not do.
``My heart goes out to her, but she doesn't understand it - the scam and the legal fiction that there never was a marriage,'' says Robert Blair Kaiser, author of The Politics of Sex and Religion, and a board member for the dissident Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church.
Kaiser, whose group investigates violations of individual rights by the church hierarchy, says that ecclesiastical leaders have intentionally promoted the erroneous idea that an annulment renders a marriage nonexistent. Why? Because the truth - that the church not only acknowledges that an annulled marriage existed, but recognizes it as fact of civil law - is far more difficult to justify in light of the church's stand against divorce, Kaiser says.
``She thinks that if Joe gets an annulment, there never was any marriage,'' says Kaiser. ``That's the common view. But it's a lie, it's a scam. Of course there was a marriage there; of course her children are legitimate.''
Rauch Kennedy's book doesn't make clear whether she simply does not accept the church's view of an annulled marriage - that it did exist, but is no longer valid in the eyes of the church - or if she is, as Kaiser suggested, a victim of misinformation. Speaking through her publicist at Pantheon Books, Rauch Kennedy, daughter of Villanova socialite Frances Brewster Rauch and former Philadelphia Savings Fund Society chairman R. Stewart Rauch, declined repeated requests for interviews until after her planned appearance tonight on the ABC news show PrimeTime Live.
What is clear, at least from Shattered Faith, is that Rauch Kennedy considers the American Catholic church's approach to annulments hypocritical and wrongheaded, and that local tribunals are overseeing a virtual assembly line of nullities granted on the flimsiest grounds.
She writes that in the United States, the Catholic Church grants more than 60,000 annulments a year, three-quarters of all the nullities approved worldwide. Church officials say they don't publicize statistics for annulments, but agree with Rauch Kennedy that the vast majority of petitions - about 90 percent - are approved.
That doesn't mean the process is easy, says Msgr. James J. Graham, judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and head of its marriage tribunal. Only 10 percent of all divorced Catholics ever seek an annulment, he says, and those who do are highly motivated to follow through with what can be a rigorous, time-consuming process.
As for the comparatively high rate of annulment in the United States, Msgr. Graham says it reflects both the nation's comparatively high divorce rate, as well as the wide-ranging tribunal system in this country.
``There are a lot of places, especially in the third world, where there are no tribunals,'' says Msgr. Graham.
Even so, the Vatican has voiced concern over the number of nullities being granted in the United States, so Rauch Kennedy's decision to appeal directly to the Rota might be viewed as strategically smart.
Msgr. Graham estimated that she has a 50-50 chance of blocking Kennedy's annulment petition.
Patricia M. Dugan, a Philadelphia civil lawyer who is among the few women in the nation licensed to practice canon law, isn't so sure.
She says that Rauch Kennedy's book, while heartfelt and truthful, suggests that she may be antagonistic toward the Catholic Church, a fact that the judges at the Rota may not be willing to overlook.
In addition, the Archdiocese of Boston has a solid reputation among canon lawyers, says Dugan, and despite the debate over annulments, the American tribunal system is highly regarded.
Does that make it perfect? Hardly, says Dugan.
``Nobody understands an annulment outside the system,'' she says. ``There is no dissemination of information. People call me all the time, other attorneys with questions.''
And the further you are outside the Catholic Church, the more difficult it is to understand the process, Dugan says. Rauch Kennedy's chief hurdle, says the lawyer, may be her lack of training in the intricacies of Catholic life and ideals.
``There's a mentality to understanding our church, our faith,'' says Dugan. ``The points I find most valid [in Shattered Faith] are the ones she didn't articulate very clearly. How did she fill out the questionnaire when she knew so little about it? Why wasn't she allowed to pick her own advocate?''
Being required to accept the counsel of a church-appointed advocate is only the merest part of a process that can take up to two years and involve a probing examination of virtually every aspect of a couple's shattered marriage.
For Rauch Kennedy, it started the way it does for everyone - with a letter from the marriage tribunal saying that her ex-husband was seeking an annulment.
Had she been the petitioner and not the respondent in the request, she would have begun the process by contacting the marriage tribunal and requesting an application.
From there, both parties are mailed an 8- to 10-page questionnaire (depending on the diocese) containing inquiries about virtually every aspect of the marriage from family backgrounds, to living conditions, substance and spousal abuse, and personal intentions at the time of the wedding.
The petitioner is interviewed by a member of the tribunal office. Once the tribunal is convinced that the petitioner intends to follow through, it requests an interview with the respondent. Both parties are assigned advocates to advise and counsel them on the process and canon law. Testimony is taken from both parties, witnesses are questioned (usually four for each party, often by mail, sometimes in person, occasionally by phone).
The petitioner and respondent are asked to meet with a psychotherapist chosen by the tribunal. This meeting, intended to provide information about the emotional state of the couple, is optional for the respondent.
The parties review all testimony, and their advocates write briefs that are submitted to the tribunal. Meanwhile, the Defender of the Bond - a priest in most dioceses, but in some cases a nun or a lay person with training in canon law - writes a brief about the marriage based on the testimony. It is the responsibility of the Defender of the Bond to argue on behalf of the marriage.
The tribunal, three or four judges, virtually always priests and almost always canon lawyers, reviews the briefs, writes individual decisions, deliberates, then issues a sentence. In the event of a disagreement, the majority rules. In rare cases when a sentence is contested or appealed, the case is sent to a court of second result. Catholics in Philadelphia typically appeal to the tribunal in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. In South Jersey, Catholics appeal to the Diocese of Paterson, N.J. In Rauch Kennedy's case, the court of second result is the Rota.
After more than two years of written and verbal testimony to the all-male members of the tribunal that ruled on her ex-husband's petition, Rauch Kennedy concluded that the annulment process was invasive, highly subjective, anti-woman, riddled with bias against non-Catholics, and - in Boston, at least - far too respectful of the Kennedy mystique.
``I was, after all, a Protestant in one of the nation's largest Catholic archdioceses,'' she writes. ``My former husband was powerful and popular. I was, as he so often reminded me, a nobody: and nobody in his town would be on my side.''
Rauch Kennedy is especially critical of the grounds on which the annulment was granted. The Kennedy nullification, like virtually all annulments since the Second Vatican Council passed new rules streamlining the process in the early 1960s, was granted because of Lack of Due Discretion of Judgment. In effect, Kennedy, who has since remarried in a civil ceremony, testified that at the time of his marriage, he lacked the judgment to partake in the marriage sacrament.
Rauch Kennedy dismisses that rationale as a credibility-straining dodge, noting that if her ex-husband's judgment was deeply flawed, he failed to share that with the voters in his district. She writes that even though she had been the one who sought the divorce, it was the Massachusetts congressman who expressed the earliest, deepest cynicism about annulments.
``Catholic gobbledygook,'' is what he called it, writes Rauch Kennedy, describing a phone conversation with her ex-husband in which he demanded that his ex-wife approach his request for a nullity as a formality that would free him to get on with his life and, presumably, a church wedding with his former aide, Beth Kelly.
Kennedy has limited his comments regarding the book to a three-sentence statement in which he expresses love for his family and understanding and respect for ``Sheila's feelings.''
The church has been just as cautious.
The Archdiocese of Boston, citing confidentiality, has declined to discuss the Rauch Kennedy appeal. The archdiocese's World Wide Web site contains a lengthy examination of the subject of annulments directed at Catholics ``confused or upset about how a marriage can be declared null.''
The Rev. Michael Smith Foster, Boston's associate judicial vicar and author of the Web site statement, insisted that church officials are motivated, not by fame, wealth or gender bias, but by the demands of law.
A church marriage, like a civil marriage, is considered contractually sound at the time of the wedding, says Rev. Foster. But as time passes, he says, new evidence may emerge that raises questions about the validity of the contract.
But if the same legal standard applies to both types of marriage, isn't an annulment, in effect, a church divorce?
No, says Rev. Foster, because Catholic marriage is a sacrament with a spiritual quality. In order to be married in a Catholic church, a couple is required to attend counseling sessions in which their spiritual fitness is assessed.
For Rauch Kennedy, such explanations amount to little more than double talk. Mary Ellen Quinn Seward of St. Davids reached the same conclusion when her husband was granted an annulment - 42 years after their wedding.
``There was no reason for him to have been given an annulment,'' says Seward, 67, a Catholic, mother of 8 and grandmother of 11.
``He went and met someone 17 years younger, had a church wedding, and the priest got up and said how wonderful it was that he met someone at such a late date so they could be happy. If he was that unhappy for 42 years, something would have been done before - he would have walked out of the marriage. Then, for him to be accepted by the church? It's hypocrisy.''
Donald Seward, 71, says he had no choice but to seek an annulment because he wanted to remarry in the church.
``Was it fair?'' he asks. ``Certainly. I didn't coerce the church into giving me an annulment. I gave them all the facts they asked for, and in their divine wisdom, they gave me an annulment.''
Perhaps, but when Rauch Kennedy goes to Rome to test the divine wisdom of the Boston tribunal, she will carry the good graces of Mary Ellen Quinn Seward, and likely many others who feel that the American way of annulment is wrong.
``She's the one to push it,'' says Seward. ``She has the name, she has the publicity. I still remember her big wedding down in Gladwyne.''