The Champion of the Dignity of All God’s Children, The Anchor, August 21, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
August 21, 2009

Last Friday in Hyannis the Church celebrated the funeral of a truly remarkable, faithful and strong Catholic woman who was the personification of the Good Samaritan toward those with special needs. Eunice Kennedy Shriver said to others countless times that one person could make a difference, and her life is a testimony to how much of a difference one person can make. Her efforts revolutionized the way we view and treat those with special needs, ameliorated the lives of literally millions of her “special friends,” and inspired millions more to imitate her in recognizing not merely their potential but in helping them to achieve it. The occasion of her death, like the passing of anyone great, is an opportunity for all of us to examine our attitudes and actions on the basis of hers and rededicate ourselves to carrying the torch she lit ablaze and held aloft.

It’s also important for us as a culture to do this, for while in many respects we have come a long way since that time in which, as Eunice Kennedy Shriver wrote in 1964, “the birth of a retarded child implie[d] some kind of social stigma, something to be hidden and ashamed of,” and those with mental handicaps were “shut away, child and adult, in squalid institutions to waste their lives, staring blankly at the emptiness around them,” we are, at least in one very concrete way, regressing. The scientific research into the various causes of mental retardation — much of which was promoted, started and funded by the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation that Shriver helped to run for decades — is now being used against, rather than in favor of, those with special needs.

The most notable example of this involves those with Down’s Syndrome, who were so dear to Shriver. The scientific research into Down’s Syndrome led to the discovery that it is caused by the presence of a third 21st chromosome. That knowledge, however, rather than being put exclusively to finding a cure, has been developed into tests to assay the presence of Down’s Syndrome in a child in the womb. While such knowledge could be used to help a couple prepare to welcome a child with special needs, it is being used mainly for destruction. Recent scientific surveys have shown that over 90% of parents who receive a diagnosis that their unborn boy or girl has Down’s choose to abort. This is a far cry from Shriver’s advice to couples in 1964 about how they should react when they find out that a child is mentally-handicapped: “Be proud of him as a member of the family. Give him love, love, love.”

That was, of course, the way she related to her sister Rosemary. She described in a 1962 article, which disclosed Rosemary’s mild mental retardation to the general public, how not only Rosemary responded to that love but how others in similar circumstances do as well. “They have feelings and emotions, hopes and affections, personal dreams and sufferings,” she would write. “The retarded should not be shunned and ridiculed, treated as outcasts. They should and must be helped. We of the bright, real world must reach out our hands into the shadows, not with the trembling emotion but with sure-footed, level-headed assistance.” She got specific about what that assistance can do. “In this era of atom-splitting and wonder drugs and technological advances, it is still widely assumed that the future for the mentally retarded is hopeless.” She strived to show, rather, that it was full of hope. “The truth is that 75 to 85 percent of the retarded are capable of becoming useful citizens with the help of special education and rehabilitation. Another 10 to 20 percent can learn to make small contributions, not involving book learning, such as mowing a lawn or washing dishes.” The achievements of the millions who have competed in Special Olympics — which surpass the athletic abilities of the vast majority of people without special needs — are a witness to this hope. She saw that hope in her sister as well as in all her special friends. All of us are called to share and advance that vision.

That vision is totally contrary to one that kills in the womb those diagnosed with special needs. Shriver expressed her horror in her 1962 article that parents were committing retarded infants to institutions right after they were born and publishing obituaries in the local papers to spread the belief that they were dead. How much worse is the practice when parents do not merely treat the child as dead but bring about its demise. For that reason, it’s totally unsurprising that Eunice Kennedy Shriver, not just in her private opinions, but in her public actions was always unambiguously pro-life. She recognized the dignity of every child and how the only worthy response to a child, even one with mental handicaps, is “love, love, love.”

Her staunch pro-life commitment did not make most of her obituaries or the numerous tributes made to her by world leaders and celebrities from the across the nation and globe. It seemed to be something that many of the notables attending her exequies seemed too embarrassed to admit — as if, to them, it was a little scandalous. They praised her for all she did to defend and advance the dignity of those born with special needs, but totally ignored what she did to protect and promote the dignity of those yet to be born with or without special needs. Their selective reticence, however, may have come from the fact that, in her presence, they may have been a little ashamed at their own lack of consistency, principle, and courage.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver had the integrity and the pluck to remain publicly pro-life even when, sadly, her Democratic party, several of the members of her family, many of those in her social circle and even some misguided fellow Catholics did not. Among the many things she did to advance the pro-life cause, she hosted receptions in her home to honor pro-life stalwarts, like Mary Cunningham Agee of the Nurturing Network. With her husband, Robert Sargent Shriver, she provided crucial advice and encouragement to the founders of Feminists for Life, an organization from which Kennedy Shriver received the Remarkable Pro-Life Woman award in 1998. When the National Abortion Rights Action League published an advertisement manipulating her brother John F. Kennedy’s words in favor of their abortion advocacy, she published a letter in the New York Times in which she not only defended her brother but the U.S. bishops’ pro-life work, describing why it was not at all a violation of the principle of the separation of Church. In 1992, she was one of several prominent Democrats to sign a letter to the New York Times protesting the pro-abortion plank in the Democratic Party platform. She was a supporter of Democrats for Life for America, the Susan B. Anthony List and Feminists for life.

In a tribute, Cardinal Sean O’Malley praised her for “preeminently pro-life, against abortion and there to protect and underscore the dignity of every person. This, of course, manifested itself in her love for children with disabilities, … [which like the l’Arche movement in Canada] was born out of the Church’s teachings on the dignity of every human person as a treasure made in the image and likeness of God and of our obligation to care for each other and to recognize the gift in each person. Certainly, what Eunice Shriver did made a positive impact in so many ways and was a very strong witness of her Catholic faith … [which] was a very important part of what motivated her and … was certainly the soil out of which grew her passion and dedication to the less fortunate and those who are challenged by disabilities and mental retardation.”

She was indeed “a woman of ardent faith and generous public service,” as Pope Benedict said through our papal nuncio. May all of pick up the torch of her ardent faith, selfless service and “love, love, love” of all those, born and unborn, who were her and remain the Lord’s special friends.