01 settembre 2009

What is Sen. Ted Kennedy's "Catholic legacy"?

Posted by Carl Olson on Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 01:13 PM | Permalink

O God of spirits and all flesh, who have trampled death, broken the power of Satan, and have granted life to your world: grant rest, O Lord, to the soul of your departed servant, in a place of light, joy, and peace, where there is no pain, sorrow, or mourning. As a kind and gracious God, forgive every sin committed by him in word, deed, or thought, since there is no person who lives and does not sin. You alone are without sin, your justice is everlasting justice, and your word is the truth. For you are the resurrection, the life, and the repose of your departed servant, O Christ, our God, and we glorify You, together with your eternal Father, and your all-holy gracious, and life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and forever. Amen. — from the Byzantine Liturgy for the funeral of a layman

May God grant peace to Sen. Edward Kennedy. I do hope and pray he reconciled with the Church before his death. I have no interest in judging his or anyone else's soul, nor do I have any interest in combing through what is known (or allegedly known) about his personal life.

My interest is in his public, political legacy. Especially his Catholic Legacy, which is, for better or worse, bound up closely with his substantial political legacy. Especially after reading pieces such as this one, "Kennedy's legacy reflected the values of the Catholic Church", posted on the Indianapolis Star blog. The author, Robert King, assures readers of Kennedy's devout and serious Catholicism:

Kennedy, for everything he was, was Roman Catholic. And the values of the church -- concern for the poor, for the less fortunate -- were reflected in his public service. At the end of a life, the record he leaves behind is an honorable one.

The "Catholic Democrats" site goes even further, calling Kennedy "one of the most important Catholic political leaders in our country's history":

His irreplaceable brand of leadership in Congress and to the nation led to the passage of unprecedented landmark legislation that covered a broad range of social justice issues which reflected both Catholic Social Teaching and his deep personal faith. He touched the lives of hundreds of millions of people, providing for their fundamental human needs, opening doors of opportunity, and helping create a more just society.

"Senator Kennedy's Catholicism was at the core of his identity," said Dr. Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats. "The common thread that runs through everything he accomplished was his belief in building things for the benefit of others, particularly those most in need. I believe this is the essence of being a good Catholic, and I think it's right at the heart of Senator Kennedy's entire legacy."

Well, there is no need to speak ill of the dead, but there is also no reason to avoid speaking honestly about his record. And there are, clearly, some serious issues with Kennedy's record when seen in the light of authentic, official Catholic social doctrine.

The most obvious is that of abortion, as most readers surely know. What some people might not know is that Kennedy did not always have a 100% rating with NARAL. Back in 1971 he wrote a letter to Catholic League member Tom Dennelly stating, "Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized. When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception."

By the late 1970s he, like many other Democrats, had completely changed his position. Part of his legacy, then, is a staunch support for "abortion rights," which included voting "No" on banning partial birth abortions and voting "No" on prohibiting minors crossing state lines for abortion.

In addition, he supported embryonic stem research and he voted "No" onbanning human cloning. He was also a strong supporter of access to and funding for contraceptives.

Little mentioned, as far as I've seen, was Kennedy's support of "gay rights" and so-called "same-sex marriage." So much so that one homosexual writer described Kennedy as "a longtime champion of gay rights" and added, "Unlike other politicians, Kennedy never wavered in his support of gay marriage, voting against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act and an anti-gay federal marriage amendment. DOMA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton."

Also not discussed much is Kennedy's consistent support of compulsory public education, constantly increasing funding for public schools, and the NEA. Massachusetts, the home state of seminal "American educationist" Horace Mann, has a history of being on the cutting edge of public school "reform", and Kennedy certainly fit well within that culture. Kennedy opposed vouchers, he opposed allowing schools to have voluntary prayer, and he opposed abstinence education. As one commentator (and Kennedy admirer) rightly observed, " Liberal in spirit, he served as conservator for public education, always recognizing it as the foundation of the U.S. educational system. ... Mr. Kennedy opposed school vouchers and anything that would draw funds away from the public education system. ... He opposed tax-free savings accounts of up to $2000 per child annually which would be used for public or private school tuition." Of course, Kennedy and his siblings attended private schools. It is the sort of progressive, paternalistic elitism found among so many political liberals, including President Obama, Hilary Clinton, and Co.

Which brings me to an excellent post on "The Corner" by Fr. Robert Sirico, who writes that Kennedy's death "marks the passing of a generation that thought that being Catholic, Democratic, and pro–New Deal were synonymous. We now live in an age where many Catholic Americans are very happy to be described as pro-market and are suspicious of New Deal–like solutions — as, of course, they are entitled to be in a way that they are not on, for example, life issues. Senator Kennedy had it exactly the wrong way around."

Kennedy, like his brothers, was a believer in statism, in the goodness of large government, in the benevolent wisdom of experts and bureaucrats, in the need for Mother State to not just guard her little tax-paying chicks, but to potentially guide and shape their every step, thought, and action. His public record does not indicate a strong understanding of Catholic social doctrine, nor a willingness to adhere to it. It simply does not mesh well with the Church's call to protect the unborn, the family, the principle of subsidiarity:

The starting point for a correct and constructive relationship between the family and society is the recognition of the subjectivity and the social priority of the family. Their intimate relationship requires that “society should never fail in its fundamental task of respecting and fostering the family”.[570] Society, and in particular State institutions, respecting the priority and “antecedence” of the family, is called to guarantee and foster the genuine identity of family life and to avoid and fight all that alters or wounds it. This requires political and legislative action to safeguard family values, from the promotion of intimacy and harmony within families to the respect for unborn life and to the effective freedom of choice in educating children. Therefore, neither society nor the State may absorb, substitute or reduce the social dimension of the family; rather, they must honour it, recognize it, respect it and promote it according to the principle of subsidiarity (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, par. 252).

Ted Kennedy should not be demonized, but neither should he be lionized as a politician whose public legacy reflects a serious and principled Catholicism. He undoubtedly had a complicated and often contentious relationship with the Church. But TIME magazine got it right (amazing, yes) in the title of its article about Kennedy's passing: "Ted Kennedy's Quiet Catholic Faith." Kennedy's public and political persona, which was large and loud and bold, was noticeably quiet when it came to Catholic beliefs about the unborn, contraceptives, bio-ethics, homosexuality, and other important issues. Jim Wallis, quoted in the TIME piece, said that Kennedy "was deeply conflicted on abortion, feeling kind of trapped by the liberal side, frankly." Fine. But we are also told, by other liberal admirers, that Kennedy was not the sort of man to back down; he was, after all, the Lion of the Senate.

Either way, the legacy is a troubling one: he was, in one reading, willing to sell (or at least lease) his faith for political porridge, or he really believed his private beliefs could be quarantined from his political actions (Mario Cuomo, anyone?). Perhaps both were the case. Unfortunately, the wheels of the Kennedy mythological manufacturing plant are already in motion, and it is already trying to rewrite the record and whitewash the legacy, coating it with a layer of Catholic blessings it simply doesn't deserve.

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