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.