Kennedy’s Catholic legacy

When Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery today, America will bury its most famous Catholic politician and its most visible link to the bonds of identity and solidarity that have for so long joined Catholics to the Democratic Party.

His was one of those ethnic American families where the memory of immigration’s hardships lingered through the generations, and it was wryly noted that “you were baptized a Catholic but born a Democrat.”

One question that will hover over Kennedy’s long and affectionate national wake is whether those bonds will survive the attempts by some vocal bishops to drive a wedge between church members and the Democrats, particularly over abortion. Many of them are pushing the church to deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic elected officials and, after them, will likely turn their wrath on Catholic voters who support pro-choice candidates at the polls.

Some of this internecine ugliness bubbled to the surface after Kennedy’s death this week. Russell Shaw, a contributing editor to the Catholic weekly Our Sunday Visitor, argued that “when Kennedy defied the church on issues such as abortion and later, gay marriage, he reinforced a corrosive belief among Catholics that they can simply ignore teachings they don’t agree with.” On the other side of the divide was Father James Martin, editor of the influential Jesuit weekly America, who called Kennedy’s “achievements on immigration, fighting poverty and other legislation ... a virtual mirror of the church’s social teaching.”

Boston’s Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley issued a brief and grudging statement on Kennedy’s death, while L.A.'s Cardinal Roger Mahony celebrated the liberal senator. “The voiceless, the powerless and the most needy of our citizens have lost a great champion with the death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy,” he said, though also noting his disappointment in Kennedy on abortion. “His deep and personal commitment to causes affecting the poor and needy among us flowed from his deep Catholic faith.”


Kennedy’s own journey to support of abortion rights was not, as is usually assumed, simply an accommodation with majoritarian sentiment inside the Democratic Party. In 1964, the Kennedy and Shriver families convened a group of eminent Catholic theologians at Hyannis Port to discuss whether Catholic officeholders could licitly support pro-choice laws. The group included the Jesuit ethicist Albert Jonsen; Father Robert Drinan, then dean of Boston College’s law school, and four moral theologians: fathers Joseph Fuchs, Giles Milhaven, Richard McCormick and Charles Curran. As Jonsen recounts in a 2003 book, “The Birth of Bioethics,” their colloquium was influenced by the great Jesuit the Rev. John Courtney Murray, who “distinguished between the moral aspects of an issue and the feasibility of enacting legislation about that issue.” The Hyannis Port theologians agreed that Catholic lawmakers “might tolerate legislation that would permit abortion under certain circumstances if political efforts to repress this moral error led to greater perils to social peace and order.”

Kennedy remained opposed to abortion well into the 1970s, but after reflection and further consultation with the theologians, he eventually embraced their unanimous conclusion that Catholic officeholders could be pro-choice while remaining personally averse to abortion. That, of course, has since become the position of a majority of American Catholics, particularly those under 40.

They strongly would agree with sentiments Kennedy expressed in 1983, when -- at the invitation of Jerry Falwell -- he addressed the students at Liberty Baptist College. “People of conscience should be careful how they deal in the word of their Lord,” he said. “In our own history, religion has been falsely invoked to sanction prejudice -- even slavery -- to condemn labor unions and public spending for the poor. I believe that the prophecy, ‘The poor you have always with you’ is an indictment, not a commandment.”

Kennedy told his conservative Protestant hosts, “I hope for an America where we can all contend freely and vigorously, but where we will treasure and guard those standards of civility which alone make this nation safe for both democracy and diversity.”

Looking back, the senator from Massachusetts, who had moved beyond the tribal Catholicism of his upbringing, was describing precisely the way a majority of young American Catholics now experience their faith. Many of them might also have smiled when Kennedy quoted Pope John XXIII: “We must beware of those who burn with zeal but are not endowed with much sense.”