Kennedy's Catholic legacy

Now that the senator is laid to rest, after days of saturation
coverage by an adoring and sometimes reverential media, a few thoughts….

What the secular media and some religious media left out or distorted in their reporting of Kennedy’s life and impact was his Catholic legacy.

Well, there is no need to speak ill of the dead, but
there is also no reason to avoid speaking honestly about his record.
And there are, clearly, some serious issues with Kennedy’s record when
seen in the light of authentic, official Catholic social doctrine.

The most obvious is that of abortion, as most readers surely know.
What some people might not know is that Kennedy did not always have a
100% rating with NARAL. Back in 1971 he wrote a letter to Catholic
League member Tom Dennelly stating, “Wanted or unwanted, I believe that
human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must
be recognized. 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

By the late 1970s he, like many other Democrats, had completely changed his position.

But this particular Catholic Democrat made a significantly larger impact and lasting legacy in his reversal.

At a meeting at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport,
Mass., on a hot summer day in 1964, the Kennedy family and its advisers
and allies were coached by leading theologians and Catholic college
professors on how to accept and promote abortion with a “clear

That has given cover to decades of Catholic politicians proclaiming
that right and defending that position, even against the outpouring of
corrections of Church teaching and clarifications issued by Catholic
bishops. It laid the groundwork on which Governor Mario Cuomo would
build a shelter for abortion-supporting Catholic politicians in his
infamous 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame.

At Kennedy’s funeral,
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick talked about the letter the senator sent to
Pope Benedict, and that has generated a lot of interest and continuing
confusion about Catholics and conscience.

A snip from that letter:

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 of my

This begs several questions, starting what it means to be a faithful
Catholic, frankly. And what the difference is between believing and
respecting the fundamental teachings of the faith and disobeying them
publicly, with tremendous consequences.

Not to judge the senator in retrospect but to clarify the matter for
Catholics engaged in debates over social policy and the role of
religiously informed voices in the public square……these questions
should be addressed.

And they are. In engaging places.


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