Senator Ted Kennedy: A Catholic We Could Canonize

For Catholics, the death of Senator Edward Kennedy is a personal loss, as public figures are often claimed as kin by those who share their heritage, age, or 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 F. 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 of anti-Catholic bigotry and the 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—nine kids—the kind of raucous brood right out 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 1970s, 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 regularly; even into the 21st century.

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” (I was president of Catholics for a Free Choice). 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 differences of opinion, even large ones, 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 life-long. 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 rights 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, certainly, 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 1940s and ’50s, abortion would not have been mentioned; it simply was not an issue much before it started to become legal in the late ’60s in the United States. 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. I remember the late John 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 bioethics; then-Catholic University star Charles Curran; Albert Jonsen, a Jesuit bioethicist; and Father Drinan, Dean of Boston College Law School, rounded out the team. According to Giles, the moral theologians and priests met together for a while before being 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.

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 in 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.

And perhaps in honor of Senator Kennedy, those of us who are struggling with terminology about what kind of progressives we are should turn to the Senator: a liberal Catholic, opposed to unjust wars, committed to ending poverty, educating children, reforming health care, protecting LGBT rights, and affirming the moral agency of women and their right to comprehensive reproductive health care.

Now there’s a Catholic we could canonize.

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