Tribal sentimentality: Some careful considerations

That Catholics are fighting publicly is not news. It is spun a lot
though, and the media are certainly watching. Which is why Pope John
Paul II reminded the faithful throngs gathered at a Mass in Chicago’s
Grant Park in 1979 that unity will be the test of their credibility.

Three decades later, president-elect Barack Obama delivered his
victory speech from a stage in that same park, a victory due in large
part to Catholics in America. And their sway was due in no small part
to the endorsement of the Kennedy family, led by the powerful senator
from Massachusetts.

Now, the sheer volume of articles and public commentary out there on
Sen. Ted Kennedy’s life, work and Catholicism is overwhelming. Some of
it is very good.

This First Things piece is outstanding. Read every bit of it.

The Catholics are going to tear each other apart over Ted Kennedy. Is that really the legacy anyone wants to bequeath to him?

Elizabeth Scalia does the best job I’ve seen yet of weaving the
compelling tale of a tribe in pitched battle within itself. And she
challenges Catholic writer Michael Sean Winter….who’s currently engaged
in argument with another Catholic writer, Patrick Madrid,….to explain
some of his defensive volleys. Such as this snip from something Winters

To say that Sen. Kennedy was flawed is to say that he
was a human being. To dismiss his career because of his stance on
abortion is to be ignorant of the complicated way the issue of abortion
manifested itself in the early 1970s: I think Kennedy got it wrong but
I do not find it difficult to understand why and how he got it wrong.

To which Scalia responds…

Winters, do tell. What is your take on the
difficulties of the 1970’s and how they “understandably” influenced
Kennedy, albeit wrongly? I ask in good faith because—although I come
from a Kennedy-loving, blue-collar, Democrat family—I never thought of
Kennedy’s stance on abortion (or Mario Cuomo’s for that matter) as
anything but a political expediency; abortion created political
difficulties, so our political class learned to do an intellectual (and
cowardly) dance around a moral absolute. Spinning like rhetorical James
Browns, Kennedy and Cuomo and others defined death down, in a manner
that directly impacts our current debates on healthcare,
“aid-in-dying,” rationing, embryonic destruction, and all life issues.

With all due respect to Winters, it appears his sentimentality is
being allowed to overrule simple truth, here; we Catholics, having been
warned about the “dictatorship of relativism” by a bishop of Rome, have
a responsibility to make sure we are serving the truth even as we
endeavor—as we absolutely must for the sake of Christ—to serve

If that’s the money quote, add this to it:

It was ever thus; truth and justice are only served when
one considers the whole man, and a whole life, even those parts that
make us wince.

(And there are many links on the page to good articles that fill out the picture.)

Sen. Kennedy did his share of private and public good
but then, we most of us do our share of good, proportionate to our
means and connections; it is by no means disrespectful to the memory of
this influential and powerful man to recall that he pivoted on abortion
during a moment of crucial debate, and as Kennedy was then the very
voice of Catholic politics, that mattered. His turnaround on abortion
gave the American Catholic the means of paying lip service to life
while enabling a culture of death. They didn’t even have to think about
it, because Ted Kennedy had thought about it for them, and even fed
them their lines.

He and other Catholic politicians made America dizzy with the
oddball notion that one could be “personally opposed” to abortion but
too broad-minded to “impose my views on others.” That sounded so
reasonable and tolerant that it simplified the abortion debate for
people who did not care to consider how nonsensical it was. Being
“personally opposed” to the death penalty, would Kennedy have tried not
to “impose those views” on states, had he the chance? Had he been
“personally opposed” to slavery 150 years ago, would he not certainly
have tried to “impose” his views on others?

In terms of perception, Kennedy’s public positions did and do make
life difficult for priests and bishops, but scandal is not at issue,
here. Catholics find myriad ways to bring scandal to the Bride of
Christ, every day. This is about the credibility that Kennedy’s
endorsement gave to the abortion movement, and how that endorsement
contributed to the subsequent decrease in respect for, and defense of,


Kennedy was “human and flawed,” true; in commonality his
inherent brokenness deserves a fair measure of understanding and
compassion. But he was also a powerful public figure who substantially
argued against the teachings of his own Church, sowed doubt and
confusion among his fellows-in-faith and contributed to a cheapening of
human life in the public mind. We gave him license to do all of that
when we allowed his politics, behaviors, and office to go unchallenged.
As we look back on his life (and ours in his era) it must all be

Suddenly, a mystery: Kennedy’s sins comingle, to an extent, with our
own, which is why vehement condemnation is not ours to deliver unto
him; nor may we extend boundless mercy, lest we fool ourselves, and
enable similar behaviors…

But the handling, withholding, or polishing of Ted Kennedy’s crown
is entirely the province of the Almighty. Our job is to be
compassionate, and clear-eyed about the totality of the man, and then
kiss it all up to God, in something approximating peace and charity.

Fr. Bob Barron does that as well, here.


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