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NRO: Kennedy the Catholic

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Published today on National Review Online:

I only met Edward Kennedy once.

I had been invited to visit then-senator Phil Gramm, who was contemplating a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. Having read some of my musings on the topic, Senator Gramm wanted to brainstorm about some innovative welfare-reform policies that would simultaneously make economic sense and really help the poor.

After we had chatted for some time in his office, a bell rang and Senator Gramm rose. “I need to take a vote. Walk with me and let’s continue this conversation,” he said.

As we walked down the corridor, I could spy familiar names on the various Senate office doors. We came to an elevator that would take us down to an underground subway connecting the Senate offices to the Senate chamber. It was a small elevator, no more than a large closet. Senator Gramm, an aide, and I tucked ourselves in and the door began to slide shut.

Just before closing, an arm came through to stop the door’s close. As it reopened, I found myself standing face-to-face with the Lion of the Senate, arguably the most prominent Catholic layman in the country, scion of the most prominent Catholic family, perhaps, in U.S. history. Kennedy immediately looked me up and down, and then quizzically glanced over to Senator Gramm trying to figure out why his colleague was hanging out with a priest.

As Senator Kennedy stepped into the elevator, Senator Gramm welcomed him with his Southern tones, “Come on in, Teddy. We’ve called you here to pray for you.”

Without missing a beat, Senator Kennedy tossed a mischievous wink in my direction, nudging me with his elbow in Catholic camaraderie and replied in his Bostonian accent, “Uhh [there was that familiar pause of his], uhh, no Phil, Father and I have called you here to pray for you.”

There was laughter as the elevator door slid closed. It was my turn to speak so I decided to enter the spirit of the moment.

I stood erect, place my hand on Senator Kennedy’s broad shoulder and said, “Actually, senator, this is an exorcism.”

The laughter in that elevator, which spilled out onto the train platform, was electric, causing the by-standing senators to look in our direction and wonder what in the world would have Senators Kennedy and Gramm in such uproarious laughter with a Catholic priest.

And so, I had mixed feelings on the news of Ted Kennedy’s passing. A memory of a pleasant encounter, but knowledge that despite our common baptism, Senator Kennedy and I differed in some very radical ways on issues of public policy, economics, heath care, marriage, and, most fundamentally, on matters related to life.

James Joyce once remarked that the Catholic Church was “Here comes everybody,” and while I relish the experience of being part of a Church rather than a sect, a Church in which there are a host of matters on which faithful Catholics can disagree, I also recognize that there are some defining issues from which are derived the very sense of a shared identity. From my own life and in my pastoral work, I understand that not everyone lives up to the demands of the faith all the time. Graham Greene’s famed “whiskey priest” in The Power and the Glory was the prototype of an essentially good, yet flawed man.

Yet there are some matters so grave that they go beyond mere flaws and work to diminish or even fracture an identity. I fear that this will be part of Ted Kennedy’s legacy, notwithstanding his other personal weaknesses.

What might the face of the Democratic party, indeed American politics, today look like if Ted Kennedy had, instead of reversing himself, maintained the unflinching stance of his late sister Eunice in her consistent defense of vulnerable human life — whether that of a mentally handicapped child or sister or an infant in the womb? Instead, the senator took the dubious advice of certain Boston Jesuits to abandon that tradition and hence those most vulnerable.

Many will speak and write of the legacy of Ted Kennedy in the days ahead. For me, as an East Coast “ethnic” grandchild of immigrants, Kennedy’s death symbolizes several cogent moments in Catholic America.

It marks the passing of a generation that thought that being Catholic, Democratic, and pro–New Deal were synonymous. We now live in an age where many Catholic Americans are very happy to be described as pro-market and are suspicious of New Deal–like solutions — as, of course, they are entitled to be in a way that they are not on, for example, life issues. Senator Kennedy had it exactly the wrong way around.

Kennedy’s death also brings the Church face-to-face once again with the fact that there is a massive problem of basic Catholic education — catechesis — among the faithful. So many Catholics — even some clergy — make an absolute out of prudential issues such as economic policy, while relativizing absolutes, such as abortion, euthanasia, and marriage. This is done in the face of clear, binding teachings from John Paul the Great, who said that no other right is safe unless the right to life is protected, or, as Pope Benedict wrote recently in Caritas in Veritate, that life issues must be central to Catholic social teaching.

This also marks the passing of a certain type of cultural Catholicism — Northeast, Irish and increasingly Italian, concerned with obtaining political power while maintaining an identification with the Church, yet happy to relinquish the substance of the faith if it gets in the way. Indeed, today such cultural Catholics have dispensed even with the identity aspect and are often outright hostile to the Church of their baptism.

I would like to think that the letter, reported to have been ten pages, that Ted Kennedy wrote and asked President Obama to hand to Pope Benedict early in the summer renders an account of his life before God and the Church. I certainly pray he died at peace, reconciled with the Church of his fathers, and in God’s merciful grace. And I shall pray for his eternal beatitude.

Rev. Robert Sirico Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America, following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London. During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems. As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990. As president of the Acton Institute, Fr. Sirico lectures at colleges, universities, and business organizations throughout the U.S. and abroad. His writings on religious, political, economic, and social matters are published in a variety of journals, including: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the London Financial Times, the Washington Times, the Detroit News, and National Review. Fr. Sirico is often called upon by members of the broadcast media for statements regarding economics, civil rights, and issues of religious concern, and has provided commentary for CNN, ABC, the BBC, NPR, and CBS' 60 Minutes, among others. In April of 1999, Fr. Sirico was awarded an honorary doctorate in Christian Ethics from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and in May of 2001, Universidad Francisco Marroquin awarded him an honorary doctorate in Social Sciences. He is a member of the prestigious Mont Pèlerin Society, the American Academy of Religion, and the Philadelphia Society, and is on the Board of Advisors of the Civic Institute in Prague. Father Sirico also served on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission from 1994 to 1998. He is also currently serving on the pastoral staff of Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Fr. Sirico's pastoral ministry has included a chaplaincy to AIDS patients at the National Institute of Health and the recent founding of a new community, St. Philip Neri House in Grand Rapids, Michigan.


  • Thanks for your blog :)

  • Carlist

    Fr. Sirico:

    Outstanding article, but nevertheless containing one bone of contention.

    By appointing Ordinaries who were/are all too willing to accomodate the Kennedys, Pelosis and Bidens of the world, without any serious vetting as to faithfulness to the Magisterium, John Paul II hardly merits the soubriquet: “Great”

  • While Senator Kennedy’s voting record on life issues was abysmal, the 2008 Kennedy-Brownback bill stands out as perhaps the singular exception. The bill, which is yet to be funded, seeks to educate expectant mothers about the full story on their unborn child, who may have some form of disability such as Down syndrome. For decades the ignorance of the medical community (e.g. doctors, geneticists, nurses) has condemned many children with disabilities to death by abortion (for Down syndrome the rate is now 90%!). Knowing the real story will we hope encourage more mothers to keep their children, or, at the very least, place them for adoption with the many couples eager to take on a special-needs child. We hope and pray that this part of Ted Kennedy’s legacy lives on. RIP

  • Scott123

    I also enjoyed the article, as it was a pleasant diversion from the love-fest heaped on Senator Kennedy from the liberal side of the Church, but I too have to say that much of the problems the Church is facing in the USA are due to the lack of leadership of JP2, (whom some call great).
    He didn’t follow through in matching his words with actions and he was always willing to sacrifice the demands of discipline for the glory of the stage.
    If great equals popularity and applause, OK, but I think to be truly great one needs to make a lasting positive impact. JP2 definately left a church in corruption and major decline.

  • Rev. Mark F. Bauer

    Padre Sirico,

    MULTO bene!!! In your true, typically pastoral way, you have cut to the heart of the issue. You have given all of us some important points to ponder!

  • JLS

    Who cannot be overjoyed to read that Sen. Kennedy’s conscience was clean of culpability when it came to promoting abortion, since the Jesuits told him to do it?

  • Cesar Arriola

    Another “great” piece of news I’ve learned about the Jesuits.
    It reminded me of our “great” Jesuit university here in Saint Louis, MO. Great piece Father! On yet another infamous “Catholic” politician of ours. This morning I watched part of the canonization, practically speaking, of this man by two of the three celebrant priests at the funeral Mass. Way to go Catholic Church in America! WE’re making “progress” in sticking to our faith and “Catholic” identity! I felt really sorry for Archbishop O’Malley, but ask why did he have to attend ?

  • Rev. James Wyse

    Fr. Sirico,

    Your comment about the tendency to “make an absolute out of prudential issues such as economic policy, while relativizing absolutes” makes very clear a vital point. I would give my eye teeth and back molars to have more people understand that.

  • MAF

    May the Good Lord have the same mercy on your condescending, arrogant, and judgmental soul that the Lord has on the soul of Sen. Kennedy.
    I will venture to guess that your funeral will not have the same sweetness upon it as Mr. Kennedy’s.
    One may follow blindly the Lord Jesus, or one may follow blindly the institution of the Church.
    We all make our choice.
    May you live at peace with your.

  • MaryAnn

    Good article. Once again, I am reminded of my lack of charity. For decades, the first things that come to mind when hearing about Teddy are Mary Joe Kapechne and abortion. I also hope that his 10 page letter to the Pope reflected true remorse and a resolution to abandon anti-Catholic attitudes.
    I am very grateful that I am not the Bishop of Boston, or any Priest that might be asked to preside over or attend Teddy’s funeral Mass, as there will undoubtedly be a score of pro-abortion “Catholics” there who will expect to receive the Holy Eucharist. I do sincerely thank God that His Son, who died for love of us, is the Judge, and not I.
    I do wonder what happened to so many of the Jesuits? It seems that so many Catholic dissenters are Jesuits. Has their much vaunted education gotten the better of them?

  • Steve

    Father Sirico:

    While I join your prayers for Senator EMK’s “eternal beatitude”, and while I have been moved by so many stories in recent days suggesting the kindness of the man, I remain
    deeply troubled by the meanness of the Senator’s positions on life issues. I am also troubled by the missed opportunity of the Catholic Church in Bosotn, and elsewhere in America, to point out clearly, if gently, the essential requirement to defend the ethic of life for any politician purporting to be Catholic. More importantly, I fear that a great teaching moment for millions of Catholics, like myself, was too easily surrendered. While I thank God that the Catholic church is willing to reach out to all, I fear that the lesson given us sinners in recent days was this: pro-chioce Catholic legislators and pro choice Catholic laity are not really so fundamentally at odds with Catholic teaching after all. Maybe I can vote for a pro choice candidate, advocate pro choice positions, divorce and re-marry outside the church and still expect to be saluted on my passing by members of the Catholic clergy and hierarchy. While I may be unable to join in that salute,I do join in praying that the Senator will be bleesed and lifted up by the abundant mercy of Jesus Christ.

  • SMT

    Many thanks for this fine piece.

  • S of PA

    Many thanks for this fine piece. As we mark the end of the “certain type of cultural Catholicism” outlined in your article, may we all join with you in praying for God’s mercy and for the Senator’s “eternal beatitude.”

  • You were far too kind to the senator; the damage he caused will reverberate throughout the nation for decades. He should be firmly rebuked objectively in order to begin a repair of our Catholicsim. By the way, when you say Kenneday took the dubious advice of certain Boston Jesuits to abandon that tradition and hence those most vulnerable, that does not exonerate his sin. May I suggest that we go back to those Jesuits and what words of advice transpired, maybe we can begin to put the record right. God Bless you and your work, Writers for Life