For Catholics, the death of Senator
Ted Kennedy is a personal loss. Public figures are often claimed as
kin by many who share their heritage or race, age, and religion. I
remember a phone call with my doctor immediately after the election
of Barack Obama. We were rejoicing at the victory and he, an African
American, said, "You cannot believe what this means to my family." For Catholics, the election of John Kennedy and the successful work
for justice of the Kennedy brothers and sisters were grace moments of
acceptance and vindication, balm on the wounds inflicted by a history
anti-Catholic bigotry and a continuing sense that some still believed
Catholics were out of step with the world – and not in a good way.
Here was this embarrassingly large
early 20th century Catholic family – Rose and Joe had nine
children – the kind of raucous brood one felt was the subject of Monty
Python’s "Every sperm is sacred" skit and that more parsimonious
– and non-Catholic – couples would likely shake their heads at in
the supermarket. Of course, the Kennedys were rich Catholics, also
a rarity among us prior to the 1970’s, and something working Catholics
admired. Mom was pious and the children followed her lead on liturgical
practice if nothing else. You had a sense that Kennedys said grace,
prayed the Rosary and went to Mass fairly regularly even into the twenty-first
They followed external church rules,
gathered together for baptisms, weddings and funerals. When their marriages
failed they got annulments either before or after they remarried. I
ran into a bunch of them (they traveled in packs) one summer Sunday
at the airport in Islip, New York. They were returning from a family
wedding in Connecticut. The only member of the older generation present
was Ethel. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend warned me, "Don’t tell Ethel
what you do." When Ethel got around to asking me, I simply said, "I’m
not going to tell you as Kathleen says it would upset you." She let
it go and we moved on to a conversation about the Cuomos. These differences
on matters of faith and politics did not stand in the way of human relationships.
You cannot be one of nine children, be respectful of and protect each
other and allow big differences of opinion to stand in the way.
Big families contribute to respect for diversity. The Kennedys were
the epitome of James Joyce’s "Here comes everybody" and no Kennedy
more epitomized that joyous approach to life and justice than Ted Kennedy.
Here comes everybody to America and
let’s share the good life – he embraced it for himself and for others.
He fought for undocumented workers, sick people, children and the unemployed.
His commitment to ensuring that every person in America got the health
care coverage they needed and every child got a good education was lifelong.
His opposition to unjust wars, including the war in Iraq set him apart
at times from his colleagues and his bishops. Most of his work could
be said to be in the Catholic tradition of social justice and there
is no doubt that that tradition influenced the Senator and the man.
His religion was not, however, worn
on his sleeve; he did not ask aloud "What would Jesus do?" nor did
he quote any of the 3,000 biblical references to poverty. He grounded
his work and commitment in the experience and narratives of those who
suffered and had needs. And, in that suffering mass of humanity he
included women and the LGBT community. Ted Kennedy was one of only
14 members of the Senate to vote against the 1996 Defense of Marriage
Act. One never heard him utter a concern that religion would be threatened
by gay marriage. He had no difficulty distinguishing between civil marriage
and religious ceremonies. On the right to choose abortion, he
was fully pro-choice. He supported the right of women who got their medical
care from the government whether they were federal employees, in the
military or on Medicaid to the same right of conscience that women with
their own money or private insurance have. And, on every other
issue related to reproductive health and rights, he voted for women.
How did this happen in this big, very
pious Catholic family? Theology played a part but Kennedy boys
by and large did not go to Catholic schools. They went to the top prep
schools and to Harvard. Ted spent only the eighth grade at a Jesuit
prep school and went on to the Milton Academy. Had he gone to Catholic
schools in the 1940 and 50’s abortion would not have been mentioned — it simply was not an issue much before it started to become legal in
the late 60’s in the US. But there is something to be said for a good
secular education in terms of developing respect for diversity.
Of course, the Kennedys had access
to the best theological insights of the times and they used it. I remember
the late Giles Milhaven, a former Jesuit priest and theologian who served
on the Catholics for Choice board, describing some days in 1970 he spent
at the Kennedy compound discussing abortion with members of the family.
The theologians at the meeting included Joseph Fuchs, who had served
on the Papal Commission on Birth Control and chaired the committee’s
majority report; Richard McCormick, who is recognized as one of the founders
of modern bio-ethics, then Catholic University star Charles Curran.
Albert Jonsen, a then Jesuit bioethicist, and Father Drinan, who was Dean
of Boston College Law School, rounded out the team. According to Giles,
the moral theologians and priests met together for a while and then
were joined by the Kennedys and Shrivers who asked questions. Ted Kennedy
had the good fortune to engage in discourse about abortion and Catholicism
before the papacy of John Paul II virtually closed the window on the
lively debate that was going on among theologians about abortion.
None of these experts thought the act
of abortion was a moral good and they varied in their opinions on when
if ever it was morally justified – but they were clear that Catholic legislators
could vote to make abortion legal. The Shrivers never agreed and Eunice
and Sarge were active early on anti-abortion efforts. Ted, who at that
time expressed anti-abortion views but had not needed to vote on the
issue, came around to the pro-choice position by the time the first Senate
votes on abortion were required following Roe v. Wade. The first issue
was whether federal Medicaid funds could be used for abortion, and the
Senator was always in favor of such funding. Perhaps he understood the
preferential option for the poor to be determinant; perhaps he simply
saw the tragedy that surrounded very poor and very young women forced
to have children they did not want. Perhaps those theologians, whose
arguments were dismissed in a blogger’s short take on the Senator’s
death in America as "weak then and weaker now" had some influence
on the liberal lion.