Senator Kennedy’s Legacy, The Anchor, September 4, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
September 4, 2009

There is no debating that Senator Edward Kennedy lived a highly consequential life. Over the span of his 47-year career in the Senate, he became one of the nation’s most effective and powerful politicians. By ferociously championing often revolutionary pieces of legislation and hammering them through to completion, he forged a reputation as the lion of the Senate. He wanted to make a difference and through his own hard work and the assistance of a highly competent and enviable staff, he did. He accomplished a lot of good for a whole lot of people, as many people have remembered publicly and privately since his August 25 death.

It would be great if that were Senator Kennedy’s sole public legacy. But as much as many in the media and even within some segments of the Church would prefer to ignore another part of his legacy, we cannot ignore the aborted baby in the living room. With regard to the defense of innocent human life, Senator Kennedy was the cowardly lion of the Senate.

In 1971, he wrote in a letter to Tom Dennelly, “It is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized — the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old. … Once life has begun, no matter what stage of growth, it is my belief that termination should not be decided merely by desire. … 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 standards the Senator himself articulated, as we look back at his subsequent record that eventually garnered him repeatedly a perfect pro-abortion voting record from the National Abortion Rights Action League, we cannot help but conclude that he personally did not “care about human beings enough” to “fulfill [his] responsibility to [our] children from the very moment of conception.” He became one of the staunchest leaders, in fact, of two generations that have sought to extirpate “the value our civilization places on human life” so that the termination of unborn life, imposed on us by the Supreme Court in 1973, could in fact be decided “merely by desire.”

This does not eliminate or vitiate the good that he did, but neither does the good that he did excuse this tremendous evil. This evil — which is both symbolic and substantive — is part of his legacy.

Had Senator Kennedy remained both publicly and privately faithful to the sentiments he expressed in his 1971 letter, the abortion landscape in our country would almost certainly be markedly different. First, the Democratic party would probably have never developed into the staunchly pro-abortion party that it is today. As Father Raymond de Souza wrote last week in The National Catholic Register, “Kennedy’s family legacy, his impregnable position in Massachusetts (he won more than 60% of the vote the year after Chappaquiddick) and his national prominence rendered him immune from the pressures other politicians had to face. He could always choose his own path. Had he chosen to remain economically liberal but culturally conservative, he would have prevented the Democratic Party from embracing the orthodoxy of the unlimited abortion license. Had he remained pro-life the Democratic Party would have had to make place for other pro-life politicians. Had he remained pro-life many others — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson — would not have abandoned their pro-life positions as the price to be paid for national ambition.”

Like almost no one else in his generation, Senator Kennedy had the stature and the electoral security to have led the Democratic party down a very different path than the one it ended up taking. He was a vigorous leader that could have inspired many other aspiring politicians, particularly Catholic Democratic politicians, to go with him into battle. He at least had the ability and the political skills to wage a spirited defense of the civilization he described in his 1971 letter. But he didn’t, many others likewise capitulated, and a pro-abortion Democratic party is the result. That is an unmistakable part of his legacy.

Had Senator Kennedy remained publicly and privately faithful to his 1971 sentiments, moreover, we would also have a far different, and far less divided, Catholic Church in our country today. At his death and for most of the second half of his life, he was the most well-known American Catholic in public life. His example was enormous — and enormously scandalous. Because of the choices he made, the expression “Kennedy Catholic” has become a synonym, sadly, not for “good Catholic,” but for a hypocritical one, one who pays lip service to the Church’s teachings on intrinsically evil acts while seeking to justify and facilitate public violations of them. This is part of his legacy, too. If Senator Kennedy had remained true to his Catholic faith and a “doer” of the Word of God proclaimed by the Church (Js 1:22), there would without a doubt be far fewer Catholics who support abortion, or same-sex pseudomatrimony, or other such intrinsic evils today that the Senator himself championed. His example taught other Catholics that one can pick-and-choose what areas of the faith on which to be faithful, as long as one tries to do good in some other areas.

We have to add, however, that one of the reasons why Kennedy’s example was so injurious to the Church was because the pastors of the Church, for the most part, made the imprudent call to do little or nothing about it beyond general teaching statements that they hoped offending politicians would apply to themselves. There were no real consequences, and as a result, Senator Kennedy, scores of other Catholic politicians, and millions of American Catholic lay people concluded that the Church’s teachings in defense of human life cannot be that important if those who publicly and repeatedly act in violation of it do so with impunity. It would be very hard for an abortion-supporting Catholic politician to have watched Senator Kennedy’s very public and panegyrical funeral rites and not have concluded that the Church’s teachings on life are, in the end, a very small matter indeed. It would have been even harder for such a politician or others who support the evil of abortion to have been inspired toward conversion.

This leads to one of the most important lessons that pastors in the United States need to draw from the history of the Church’s interactions with Senator Kennedy for its future engagement of other pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Despite the good intentions to try to engage him, teach him, and help bring him to conversion, the strategy failed. There were many words given at the Senator’s exequies about his “private faith,” but private faith is not enough. “Faith without deeds is dead,” as St. James poignantly reminds us. The Church has a responsibility to help bring people from “private faith” to see the consequences of it in public actions, and, in the Senator’s case, we didn’t succeed.

When excerpts of his July letter to Pope Benedict were read at his committal at Arlington National Cemetery, those hoping for some sign of repentance for his formal cooperation in the blood of millions of unborn children were left disappointed: “I have always tried to be a faithful Catholic,” he wrote, “and though I have fallen short through human failings, I have never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings.”

If we take him at his word as we re-read his many past statements and work in favor of abortion, same-sex marriage, and other evils — in which he showed a total material disrespect and disregard for the Church’s teachings — it’s impossible not to conclude that after almost 35 years of patiently pastoral pedagogy, he still failed to grasp that abortion and marriage are “fundamental teachings” of the Church to which every faithful Catholic must adhere in public and private. The pastors of the Church obviously need to come up with a more effective way to get politicians to grasp the importance of the Church’s teaching than the failed strategy that was employed with Senator Kennedy.

As we Catholics pray for Senator Kennedy, that the Lord will remember the good he has done and forgive him his sins, we also pray that God will strengthen all faithful Catholics with the courage and wisdom needed more effectively to bring to conversion those who follow, promote and celebrate the enduring, lamentable parts of the Senator’s legacy.