A week after the death of Ted Kennedy, the relevant question is not whether the Massachusetts Senator deserved a Catholic funeral, but whether he deserved a ceremony of public acclamation so grand and sweeping that it might, to the untutored observer, have seemed more like an informal canonization.
We cannot know the state of Ted Kennedy's soul when he finally succumbed to brain cancer. We are told that he was visited regularly by a priest in his last days; we assume that he made a sincere confession and received absolution. We can -- and should, and do -- pray that he receives the same sort of merciful judgment that we wish for ourselves.
That indeed is the purpose of a Catholic funeral: not to honor the deceased, but to pray for the salvation of his soul. Yet that central purpose was never acknowledged during the long, elaborate ceremony last Saturday in Boston's basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help: the beautiful structure known to local residents as Mission Church. From the first greeting to the final commendation, the ceremony was a celebration of Kennedy's life and his public career. There was never a hint that Ted Kennedy might need prayers, that his eternal salvation could be in question-- that he, like the rest of us sinners, can only rely on the compassion of an all-merciful God. On the contrary, at several points during the service, priests and eulogists stated flatly that Ted Kennedy was already in heaven, enjoying the rewards of a virtuous life.
The great, unanswered question hanging over the congregation in Mission Church, and in the minds of the millions who watched the funeral Mass on television, was how the Catholic Church could arrange such a highly public tribute to a man who, over the years, was arguably the most powerful political opponent of the Catholic position on the central moral issue of our time: the battle to protect human life.
Boston's archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, muddled that point in its coverage of Kennedy's death. The Pilot story began:
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who died late Aug. 25 at the age of 77, stood firmly on the side of the Catholic Church on a wide range of issues from immigration reform to the minimum wage during his 47 years as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
But the youngest son of one of the nation's most famous Catholic families ran into criticism from leaders of the U.S. Catholic Church for his stand on abortion.
That story is misleading in two important respects. First, there is no single Catholic position on questions like immigration reform and the minimum wage; these are issues on which loyal Catholics can and do differ. Second, regarding the clear moral issue of abortion, the Pilot story does not forthrightly say that Kennedy's stand was tragically wrong, but only that he "ran into criticism." Thus the archdiocesan newspaper almost trivialized the problem. But the millions of observers who watched the funeral did not make the same mistake. All America saw that the Catholic Church was prepared to honor a politician who flouted clear, direct, and repeated public statements from the hierarchy.
A strong argument can be made for the proposition that Senator Kennedy should not have been allowed a Catholic funeral-- not because of his personal failings, but because his public stands put him in conflict with the Church. Unlike private sins, which can be absolved in sacramental Confession, serious public sins require some form of public amendment, to address the scandal that they create. Ted Kennedy never recanted his support for abortion, and so he remained in open conflict with his Church. To allow a public funeral for him meant allowing for the perception that the Church is not really serious about the abortion issue, and thus creating a new public scandal.
But Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley did not accept that line of reasoning, and his opinion was the only one that mattered. There would be a public funeral. (In order to avoid still further scandal, the funeral organizers did prevent television cameras from showing which of the prominent people in attendance received Communion.) According to a rumor that circulated widely during the past week, the cardinal refused to make the city's cathedral available for the ceremony. But there is no concrete evidence to support that rumor, and in any case a funeral in the cathedral could scarcely have been more grandiose than the ceremony in Mission Church. A separate rumor-- that Cardinal O'Malley was subtly distancing himself from the Kennedy family by his choice of liturgical vestments-- is too recondite to merit serious discussion. If any such subtle message was intended, that message was not received by the American public, which saw the funeral as the most glorious send-off the Catholic Church can arrange.
Although he did not mention Senator Kennedy's abortion advocacy during the funeral itself, while the television cameras were on him, Cardinal O'Malley did raise the issue later, in an entry on his blog at the archdiocesan web site. He acknowledged that some Catholics felt a public funeral was inappropriate, but added: "In the strongest terms I disagree with that position." The cardinal went on to warn that "zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another." Then, in a harsh judgment of his own, he added that those zealots-- by implication, the ones inveighing against the Kennedy funeral-- "do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church." (Here Cardinal O'Malley's argument echoed a similar statement that he had advanced a few months earlier, when he charged that pro-life activists in Boston were "doing a great disservice to the Catholic Church" by suggesting that participation in a state government program would require the archdiocesan hospitals to cooperate in abortion referrals. Later the cardinal directed the hospitals to withdraw from that program, tacitly acknowledging the accuracy of the pro-lifers' argument.)
While he preserved his silence on the great unanswered question during the funeral, Cardinal O'Malley did address it in his blog entry. His approach there was revealing:
Given the profound effect of Catholic social teaching on so many of the programs and policies espoused by Senator Kennedy and the millions who benefitted (sic) from them, there is a tragic sense of lost opportunity in his lack of support for the unborn.
A "lost opportunity?" A "great disappointment?" The cardinal's language suggests that Kennedy's failure lay only in what he failed to do to save the lives of the unborn. In fact, Senator Kennedy never lost any opportunity to advance the cause of unrestricted abortion on demand. He compiled a "perfect" 100% voting record, as judged by the abortion industry. He savaged Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, denouncing the legal scholar especially for his pro-life views. He accepted the "Champion of Choice" award from the National Abortion Rights Action League. During his wake at Boston's Kennedy Library, a woman wearing a "fetal feet" lapel pin was stopped at the door and informed that pro-lifers would not be allowed to view the Senator's casket.
Nor was abortion the only issue on which Senator Kennedy fought against the moral directives of the Church. He was also a stalwart supporter of embryonic stem-cell research. He encouraged the export of contraceptives to needy countries, and their distribution among American teens. He indicated his sympathy for "right to die" legislation that would pave the way for euthanasia. He was a strong advocate for legal recognition of same-sex unions. After his death, the Boston gay newspaper Bay Windows revealed that Senator Kennedy had made a series of quiet phone calls to persuade state lawmakers that they should scuttle a citizen's petition to reaffirm traditional marriage-- thus thwarting the democratic process, denying citizens their constitutional rights, and enshrining homosexual relationships as the legal equivalent of sacred matrimony.
Maybe Catholic leaders wished to overlook the Senator's public stands, but his political allies did not. At the time of his death, the leading public advocates of legal abortion and homosexual rights extolled Kennedy as their greatest legislative champion. His intense and enduring support for their causes was not an incidental matter-- not a minor aspect of his legislative record. Ted Kennedy was universally acknowledged as a public foe of Catholic teachings. So in honoring him at Mission Church, Catholic leaders sent out a very disturbing message to the world: a message that could even be construed as surrender. C.J. Doyle of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts issued a statement that was withering in its intensity, but persuasive in its logic:
No rational person can reasonably be expected to take seriously Catholic opposition to abortion when a champion of the Culture of Death, who repeatedly betrayed the faith of his baptism, is lauded and extolled by priests and prelates in a Marian basilica.
When the funeral cortege left Boston, and arrived in Arlington, Virginia, for the burial service, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick made yet another effort to camouflage the political impact of Kennedy's public career and to downplay the importance of the abortion issue. Without actually mentioning abortion directly, the retired Archbishop of Washington said:
Sometimes, we who were his friends and had affection for him would get mad at him when he roared at what we believed was the wrong side of an issue which was important to us, but we always were touched by his passion for the underdog, for the rights of working people, for better education and for adequate health care for every American.
Well, not "every American," your Eminence. Not the unborn. By identifying abortion only as "an issue which was important to us," Cardinal McCarrick managed to convey the impression that this was a pleasant disagreement among friends, rather than a desperate battle to prevent the slaughter of innocent children. And the cardinal continued to build on that impression by quoting, with evident approval, from the letter that the ailing Senator Kennedy had sent to Pope Benedict XVI earlier this year. In that letter Kennedy had said:
I have always tried to be a faithful Catholic, Your Holiness, and though I have fallen short through human failings, I have never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings.
By quoting that passage without correcting it-- without pointing out that Kennedy did not respect the fundamental teachings of the Church regarding the sanctity of human life and the duties of Catholic politicians-- Cardinal McCarrick implicitly gave his endorsement to the late Senator's warped idea of the responsibilities of a Catholic legislator.
Cardinal McCarrick revealed only portions of Kennedy's letter to the Holy Father. We don't know what other sentiments the late Senator might have expressed, what requests he might have made to the Pontiff. But we do know, from bitter experience, that Cardinal McCarrick is perfectly capable of withholding certain key portions of a letter in order to advance his own side of an argument. In 2004, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote to the American bishops, advising that prominent Catholics who "reject the doctrine of the Church" should not receive the Eucharist. That statement was clearly addressed to the situation of politicians who supported legal abortion: politicians like Ted Kennedy, in fact. But Cardinal McCarrick, to whom the Ratzinger letter was addressed, did not convey that message to his brother bishops in the US; instead he presented them with a bowdlerized version of the letter, carefully vetted to suggest that the Vatican had not recommended withholding Communion from abortion advocates.
On the occasion of Kennedy's funeral, however, Cardinal McCarrick did not censor a letter from the Vatican. Quite the contrary. The cardinal read a letter from the Vatican Secretary of State, creating the impression that it was a friendly personal letter from the Pope. Yet again, the net result of the cardinal's action was to suggest that the Church-- in this instance the Pope-- retained a warm sympathy for Senator Kennedy despite his support for the Culture of Death.
Actually Pope Benedict has avoided any public comment whatsoever on Senator Kennedy's death. Presumably the Pontiff has his reasons for choosing to be silent, and indeed it is not difficult to imagine what those reasons might be. If only the American hierarchy had opted for a similar silence-- praying for the soul of Ted Kennedy, certainly, but not extolling his public life-- the Church might have avoided another grave public scandal.
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