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Catholic politicians
About the integrity of Catholic witness
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The death of Senator Edward Kennedy has many of us walking mentally back through the last 50 years.  My earliest memories involve the Kennedy dynasty.  I clearly remember going to the polls with my mother on the year JFK was elected President, 1960.   At the time, I was just a kindergartner.

One overcast day in Seattle, I sat with the third grade class and watched the distressing news of JFK’s assassination.  For the first time, I realized that even the best heroes were not immortal.  Five years later, it would be Robert F. Kennedy, whom as an eighth grader I hoped would be president.

I was old enough then to be deeply troubled by all the tragedies which had scarred the Kennedy family across the years.  Little did I realize that these devastating blows to their families and their political influence would not only continue, but would grow increasingly cruel and demoralizing.

Just a year later, I got to know about Ted Kennedy due to Chappaquiddick.

On July 18, 1969, the death of an innocent young woman and the inexplicable behavior of a young politician should, under normal circumstances, put an end to his political career.  I recall being amazed that it didn’t.   The details of this incident seem still as shrouded in mystery as those of JFK’s assassination.  But the evidence is clear as day.  No doubt Ted Kennedy owed his political survival to the legacy of his brothers, and the anxiety of millions who did not want to lose another Kennedy.   At the same time, his ability to carry on for another forty years demonstrates amazing tenacity.

 The degree to which his Roman Catholic faith played an instrumental role in pulling him through is doubtful.  Thursday’s Time Magazine testified:

 “Teddy’s relationship with the church was uneven. He felt more disconnected from his faith after losing four of his older siblings to early and violent deaths, surviving a plane crash that killed one of his aides, and experiencing the tragedy and scandal of Chappaquiddick.  But he continued to pray, even when he wasn’t sure it would do much good.  In the early 1980s, after the failure of both his marriage and his challenge to take the Democratic presidential nomination from Jimmy Carter, Kennedy would often walk across the street from the Senate office buildings to St. Joseph’s parish, where his brother Bobby also used to find solace in prayer.”
The Time article, “Ted Kennedy’s Quiet Catholic Faith,” discusses what at times appeared to be a major question mark hanging over the Senator.   I’d encourage you to read the report online.  Here are two more paragraphs:

“It’s safe to say that no other American family has been so associated with the word Catholic as the Kennedys. But while they were famously Catholic, the hard-living Kennedys weren’t known for being famously devout. So it might come as a surprise that faith played a deep and important role for many of them, including Ted...The Rev. Patrick Tarrant, who was at the Senator’s bedside the night he died, told ABC News that Kennedy was ‘a man of quiet prayer.’  Said the priest: ‘The whole world knows a certain part of his life very well, but I think there’s another part of his life that very few people know, and that is his deep faith.’

 “When Kennedy spoke publicly about religion, it was usually in political — not personal — terms.  In 1983, several months after he mistakenly received a fundraising letter from the Moral Majority asking for help battling ‘ultra-liberals like Ted Kennedy,’ he accepted an apologetic invitation to speak at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College (now Liberty University).  The Senator delivered an address on the topic of ‘Faith, Truth and Tolerance,’ but it was less a personal discussion of his faith than a chance to prove that he wasn’t afraid to show up in the lions’ den.  In a speech that went after critics in the Religious Right, Kennedy quoted Pope John XXIII’s words at the start of the Second Vatican Council: ‘We must beware of those who burn with zeal but are not endowed with much sense.’

 “Kennedy only fully embraced Catholicism later in life, particularly after marrying his second wife. Vicki Kennedy was one of a handful of prominent Catholic Democrats who strongly urged John Kerry to defend questions about his faith during the 2004 presidential campaign, and she served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign in 2008 in heavily Catholic areas.  The now retired Monsignor Thomas Duffy remembers the Senator and his wife becoming regular fixtures at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington’s Chevy Chase neighborhood. ‘He and Vicki used to come to Mass rather regularly when they were in town,’ says Duffy, noting that her children also went to confession and attended religion classes. ‘We sometimes didn’t agree on certain issues, but we would always chat.’”  (Time Magazine, ‘Politics’, August 27, 2009)

 The areas of disagreement have heated up over the years.  Without going into the more nuanced conflicts between many of our leading Catholic politicians, it goes without saying that the number one issue is abortion.

 From our Vice President, to the Speaker of the House, to Massachusetts’s “other liberal senator,” to a host of other prominent Catholic leaders, the common denominator of selling out for “reproductive rights” has become a great source of scandal in the Church, not to mention among millions of Christians in other biblically-based congregations.  The same defenders of human rights and dignity on innumerable other fronts seem consistently -often unapologetically - to cave in when it comes to the rights of the unborn.

 The American Bishops, after a great deal of debate and discussion, are still not of one mind and heart as to how severely to confront this dilemma.  All of them agree about the fundamental stance for life that all Catholics must embrace.  All agree that professing Catholic politicians should do the same.

 But not all agree as to the degree that strict adherence to Catholic moral teaching about the sanctity of all human life ought to dictate the political representatives platform and agenda, since he or she represents the people.

For my part, as one who watched the Kennedy family’s rising and falling over the last 50 years, and who became a Catholic in the meanwhile, I’m convinced that the time has come for our politicians to be what they claim they are.  You simply cannot profess to be Catholic and at the same time remain silent, much less aggressively promote, policies which attack the most innocent and vulnerable in the sanctuary of their own mother’s womb.

Mary Jo Kopechne died slowly, because forty years ago a young Catholic politician could not deliver her alive from the sunken car he had driven.  

He had an opportunity for forty years to overcome this tragedy by making the defense of unborn children a central cause of his political life.  While the accident at Chappaquiddick may have cost him the bid for presidency, it may also have spared Edward Kennedy from himself being assassinated.

Granted another forty years to serve his nation, the last surviving son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy proved himself a consummate politician and a master of compromise for the sake of advancing an agenda.  He fought all along for greater access to health care and for the rights of the underprivileged.  I wish he’d had taken his Catholic faith one step farther.

Then I could pray, with greater confidence, “May his soul rest in peace.”
Fr. Dean McFalls, St. Mary’s Church,  Stockton (Written August 28, 2009)