In John Ford’s classic film, The Quiet Man, John Wayne plays Sean Thornton, a quintessential American gone back to Ireland to connect with his roots. He marries Mary Kate Danaher, who warns him with a measure of pride, “I have a fearsome temper; we Danahers are a fighting people.” The highlight of the film is an epic donnybrook pitting Thornton against Mary Kate’s brother, the bellicose “Red” Will Danaher; it is a fight over cultural and moral understandings, and as the fisticuffs spill through a meadow and into the towns and pubs, the townspeople enthusiastically join in. Other communities send spectators and even the priests and bishops look on and make discreet wagers.
Something like that is occurring within the Catholic web community over the death and subsequent mainstream media—glorification (and alternate media grimaces) of the man often called the Liberal Lion of the U.S. Senate.
Here is what’s going on: Over at the National Catholic Reporter, Sr. Maureen Fiedler posted that Kennedy made her proud to be Catholic. It would be dishonest to pretend that there are not thousands of Catholics, particularly those of Boomer-age and older, who completely understand Sr. Maureen’s sentiment.
Taking an opposing viewpoint, writer Patrick Madrid responded:
Maureen, with all due respect, I can appreciate your nostalgia for the Kennedys, but I cannot understand why you would insist that Senator Edward Kennedy was a “champion of the welfare of ‘the least of these’” among us. . . . Whatever his positive qualities may have been, and no doubt he had some, the tragic reality is that Sen. Kennedy’s long political career was squandered by his vociferous, relentless promotion of abortion. And that, sadly, will be his enduring legacy.
Well. Over at America magazine, the usually restrained Michael Sean Winters did not like that—did not like that at all:
Someone named Patrick Madrid, who runs a blog and is involved with something called the Envoy Institute . . . decided to attack my colleague at NCR, Sr. Maureen Fiedler for her post remembering the late Senator. “Maureen, with all due respect,” he begins, words that reek of condescension.
Oh. My. “With all due respect,” rather than reeking of condescension, seems a sensible preface to polite disagreement, but I am pretty sure that “Someone named Patrick Madrid, who is a blogger, involved with something called. . .” actually does reek of both condescension and too, the haughty huff of one writer believing his credibility, and thus his opinion, is to be vastly preferred compared over another’s. Clearly, Michael Sean Winters was writing while angry enough to be the equal of the wildest and most wrathful Celt who ever stepped across a bog.
The Catholics are going to tear each other apart over Ted Kennedy. Is that really the legacy anyone wants to bequeath to him?
Who are these people? To what level of boorishness have the spokespeople for the pro-life community descended?
Again, a bit condescending. Just a tad. There appears to be a class clash, here, reminiscent of the GOP intelligensia and their response to non–Ivy League Harriet Miers and that upstart peasant Sarah Palin. “Eww . . . who are they?”
It’s not a great way for folks in general to regard each other, but for fellow Catholics, one may bet the Mighty John O’Connor or the Tender Timothy Dolan would counsel, ala Spencer Tracy, “ixnay; on the uperioritysay anceday; it won’t get anyone to heaven.”
Since no one has yet declared this a private fight with Marquis of Queensbury rules, it is difficult to resist joining in the fray. Here is Winters, again:
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.
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 compassion.
Madrid’s work may be unknown to the “better elements” of Catholic punditry, but his career is a respectable one and while his undeniably rough piece displeased Winters in tone and timing, he did have a point.
By all means, the good done in every life should be remembered and celebrated, but in the twenty-first century it is a problematic hagiography that dismisses some genuinely deleterious public behavior with a shrugging, “as we’re all flawed, let us on this be silent!” As Michael Sean Winters’ own colleague Fr. James Martin wrote:
Those photos of Chappaquiddick, the testimony from that rape trial, and his support for abortion must be placed alongside forty-six years of dedicated work for this country.
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.
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, life-issues.
It could be reasonably argued that Kennedy’s pro-abortion stand gave permission for millions of Catholics to, in 2008, fully ignore Barack Obama’s 100 percent NARAL rating and his lack of support for state and federal born-alive initiatives (which equates to infanticide) and to justify their support with a blithe, “but he’s so good on other Catholics issues” (that has turned out to be debatable) and “his policies will reduce the need for abortion,” which is fodder for another argument.
Ted Kennedy’s positions on life-and-death issues encouraged the euphemistic and muddled thinking that has proceeded apace in the culture, helping vague rhetoric about common ground seem credible, sophisticated and easy to digest. This ultimately enabled then candidate Obama to skate around his pro-life Catholic supporters with smooth but empty assurances that he respected their positions and would work to assuage their concerns, even as he promised the opposition that he would sign a comprehensive “Freedom of Choice Act” to address their concerns, too.
Grief over Kennedy’s passing (and, I suspect the resounding end it brings to an irreclaimable and more innocent-seeming era) should not permit us to pretend that serious effects of Kennedy’s work simply do not matter. It matters that through Sen. Kennedy’s influence many Catholics voted for candidate Obama; they now languish in a kind of suspended animation while the president runs a cup-and-ball trick with life issues—now you see it, now you don’t. Is taxpayer-funded abortion covered under Obamacare? Will healthcare rationing demand physician-aid-in-dying in place of treatment? No, not under that cup, not under that cup. The hand is quicker than the eye and the truth is become an illusion.
Beyond abortion and these human-life issues, shouldn’t we Catholics be careful not to let our praise outweigh our awareness of Kennedy’s darker chapters, merely because—as a skilled legislator—Kennedy had the means and position to do “a lot of good” for much of his life? That runs dangerously close to suggesting that connections and privilege may justly soften and excuse behavior that would not be tolerated in men of lesser reach—a notion that could rightly be considered more scandalous to Catholicism than any of Kennedy’s actual sins.
And we should perhaps consider what our acceptance of a preferred, easier-to-take narrative concerning a dreadful summer night in Massachusetts has wrought forty years on; we are now a society comfortable with relativistic “truthiness.” Something may be true, simply because one wishes it to be.
How culpable are we for that? How much damage did we do to Kennedy, and to ourselves, by indulging and enabling his reckless behavior, because we loved his familial myth?
Our hearts may lurch to recall the slumped, defeated posture of Ted Kennedy as he walked up a gangplank to identify the remains of his nephew, John F. Kennedy Jr. We may be moved to pity at his last suffering, in what could not have been an easy death, but we are not permitted to allow the truth to be subsumed by morbid tribal sentimentality. 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 considered.
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.
“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10) Ted Kennedy was an imperfect Catholic who—no one can doubt—loved his faith, even as he lived in conflict with much of it. The state of his crown is unknown at present. Patrick Madrid and Michael Sean Winters are also devout and imperfect Catholics who love their faith, and the brouhaha between them is of a piece with a million little donnybrooks taking place within Catholic families and organizations and gathering places all over America, as faith-loving Catholics try to either polish Kennedy’s tarnished crown, or hide it altogether.
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.
We devout Catholics of all stripes are a fierce tribe, and no one relished a battle more than Ted Kennedy. I wonder if his deep identification as a Catholic would be gratified to see his death commence the squabbling rhetorical fisticuffs that have us spilling out of the great room and into the streets, enticing spectators hoping to see blood, and calling on the bishops to come running.
Ted Kennedy, having now stood before the Truth—not the subjective truth, not the relative truth, but the All-in-All, Alpha-and-Omega, Truth—knows more at this hour than he did forty years ago, or forty days ago. Past caring about legacies and human perceptions, I suspect he simply hopes that the lot of us will henceforth try to serve what is wholly true—without excuses, and without euphemisms—our humanness left sufficiently intact to end a day’s bickering with a bracing single-malt salute amid brothers-in-Christ, our voices joined in a better song.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things. She blogs at The Anchoress.