Thursday, September 3, 2009

Frances Kissling Weighs in on Ted Kennedy

It is regrettable that shepherds of the Catholic Church would let the faithful be ravaged by the wolves for 40 years.

"Senator Ted Kennedy: A Catholic We Could Canonize
By Frances Kissling

August 27, 2009


Big families contribute to respect for diversity. The Kennedys were the
epitome of James Joyce¹s ³Here Comes Everybody² and no Kennedy more
epitomized that joyous approach to life and justice than Ted Kennedy.

Here comes everybody to America and let¹s share the good life: he embraced
it for himself and for others; he fought for undocumented workers, sick
people, children, and the unemployed; his commitment to ensuring that every
person in America got the health care coverage they needed and every child
got a good education was life-long. His opposition to unjust wars, including
the war in Iraq, set him apart at times from his colleagues and his bishops.
Most of his work could be said to be in the Catholic tradition of social
justice and there is no doubt that that tradition influenced the Senator and
the man.

His religion was not, however, worn on his sleeve; he did not ask aloud
³what would Jesus do?² nor did he quote any of the 3,000 biblical references
to poverty. He grounded his work and commitment in the experience and
narratives of those who suffered and had needs. And, in that suffering mass
of humanity, he included women and the LGBT community. Ted Kennedy was one
of only 14 members of the Senate to vote against the 1996 Defense of
Marriage Act. One never heard him utter a concern that religion would be
threatened by gay marriage. He had no difficulty distinguishing between
civil marriage and religious ceremonies. On the right to choose abortion, he
was fully pro-choice. He supported the rights of women who got their medical
care from the government (whether they were federal employees, in the
military, or on Medicaid) to the same right of conscience that women with
their own money or private insurance have. And, on every other issue related
to reproductive health and rights, he voted for women.

How did this happen in this big, very pious Catholic family? Theology played
a part, certainly, but Kennedy boys by and large did not go to Catholic
schools. They went to the top prep schools and to Harvard. Ted spent only
the eighth grade at a Jesuit prep school and went on to the Milton Academy.
Had he gone to Catholic schools in the 1940s and ¹50s, abortion would not
have been mentioned; it simply was not an issue much before it started to
become legal in the late ¹60s in the United States. But there is something
to be said for a good secular education in terms of developing respect for

Of course, the Kennedys had access to the best theological insights of the
times. I remember the late John Giles Milhaven (a former Jesuit priest and
theologian who served on the Catholics for Choice board) describing some
days in 1970 he spent at the Kennedy compound discussing abortion with
members of the family. The theologians at the meeting included Joseph Fuchs,
who had served on the Papal Commission on Birth Control and chaired the
committee¹s majority report; Richard McCormick, who is recognized as one of
the founders of modern bioethics; then-Catholic University star Charles
Curran; Albert Jonsen, a Jesuit bioethicist; and Father Drinan, Dean of
Boston College Law School, rounded out the team. According to Giles, the
moral theologians and priests met together for a while before being joined
by the Kennedys and Shrivers, who asked questions. Ted Kennedy had the good
fortune to engage in discourse about abortion and Catholicism before the
papacy of John Paul II virtually closed the window on the lively debate that
was going on among theologians.

None of these experts thought the act of abortion was a moral good, and they
varied in their opinions on when if ever it was morally justified were clear that Catholic legislators could vote to make abortion legal. The
Shrivers never agreed, and Eunice and Sarge were active early on in
anti-abortion efforts. Ted, who at that time expressed anti-abortion views
but had not needed to vote on the issue, came around to the pro-choice
position by the time the first Senate votes on abortion were required
following Roe v. Wade. The first issue was whether federal Medicaid funds
could be used for abortion, and the Senator was always in favor of such

Perhaps he understood the preferential option for the poor to be
determinant; perhaps he simply saw the tragedy that surrounded very poor and
very young women forced to have children they did not want. Perhaps those
theologians, whose arguments were dismissed in a blogger¹s short take on the
Senator¹s death in America as ³weak then and weaker now,² had some influence
on the liberal lion.

And perhaps in honor of Senator Kennedy, those of us who are struggling with
terminology about what kind of progressives we are should turn to the
Senator: a liberal Catholic, opposed to unjust wars, committed to ending
poverty, educating children, reforming health care, protecting LGBT rights,
and affirming the moral agency of women and their right to comprehensive
reproductive health care.

Now there¹s a Catholic we could canonize.

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