A cruel April is at hand for the memory of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Tomorrow brings the premiere of the film Chappaquiddick, by all accounts a searing portrayal of the Kennedy camp’s efforts to shield the senator from political destruction in the wake of the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Enough time has passed that, as has happened with other elements of the sexual ethic of left-of-center public figures, reflection and condemnation have become possible. But the fact remains that Ted Kennedy rolled on from the events at Edgartown and molded a reputation as a social justice warrior, a champion of immigrants, universal health care, and the poor.
That reputation contrasts starkly with his standing among social conservatives, particularly Catholics who deplored his abandonment of pro-life views early in his career and then saw him lead the fight against Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Bitter memories of Kennedy’s vicious caricature of Bork are inevitable this spring as rumors swirl of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the high court. That one action by Senator Kennedy paved the way for a judicial appointment that almost surely was the key to preserving a constitutional right to abortion on demand and to the overturning of U.S. laws protecting marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
But there is one sense in which the legacy of Ted Kennedy might serve a beneficent purpose in 2018, nearly a decade after his death. In the summer of 2009, as Kennedy was suffering from brain cancer and confronting the prospect of imminent death, he wrote a private letter to then-pontiff Benedict XVI. Reading the letter today, one is struck by both its defensiveness and its simplicity. It is not a true apologia pro vita sua, a meditation on the milestones in a life lived on the international stage as the scion of one of the most famous families in American history.
Instead, directing plain phrases to the scholarly Holy Father, Kennedy wrote in seeming self-justification both of his pride in the causes he had championed and unvarnished, if vague, acknowledgment of his failings. “I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my past.” It is impossible not to be touched by the letter’s recognition that the writer had been “part of a wonderful family” and that his parents, “specifically my mother, kept our Catholic faith at the center of our lives.”
The letter was delivered, sealed, by then-President Obama, who personally placed it in Pope Benedict’s hands during a meeting at the Vatican. Ultimately, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick read portions of the letter and the Vatican response to it at a service for Kennedy in Washington, D.C. News reports called the Vatican letter pro forma, and its cited portions avoid mention of the social issues on which Kennedy not only defied his faith, but spearheaded defiance of his faith—a modus operandi that is still deployed (and was just deployed in the recent Lamb-Saccone special election in Pennsylvania) by pro-choice Catholic Democrats.
Nonetheless, the Kennedy letter mentioned one topic on which the nation could use reconciliation. Writing of his campaign to ensure that every American had health insurance, Kennedy told Benedict of his commitment to protect conscience rights for Catholic healthcare workers. “I believe in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field and I’ll continue to advocate for it,” he wrote, as he and his colleagues worked to develop a “national health policy.”
It may be foolish to freight these words with more meaning than they were intended to bear, but it seems that Kennedy believed, or came to believe, that healthcare workers should be shielded from involvement in practices contrary to the faith to which, he wrote, he still fiercely held.
As 2018 proceeds, both national health policy and conscience protections are in sorry shape. The Affordable Care Act has afforded millions of Americans new coverage guarantees but has done so at exorbitant cost to millions of those covered, limiting their ethical options, and with dozens of lawsuits, many still pending, over its lack of conscience protections for subscribers and employers alike. Fixing the Affordable Care Act may be possible only after its utter collapse, but conscience rights for every actor in the healthcare system can be shored up with great ease by passage of the Conscience Protection Act.
This law would give conscience the best form of protection, allowing individuals a private right of recourse to the courts to vindicate their moral convictions. As Congress continues to wrestle with healthcare issues, Ted Kennedy’s posthumously revealed pledge deserves new life. On this issue, at the last, he spoke truly and wisely. May he, in this cruelest of months, rest in peace.
Charles A. Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute.