R. Sargent Shriver (1915-2011) Print
By George J. Marlin   
Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Fifty years ago this month, American Catholics watched proudly as John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president of the United States. JFK was flanked by the first Catholic Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, and the first Catholic House majority leader, John McCormack. Catholics knew they had finally arrived. And when the young Cold Warrior told the tyrants in Moscow, Warsaw, East Berlin, Bucharest, and Budapest that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty,” the souls of ethnic Catholics were stirred.

Last week one of the last and most honorable members of the Camelot era, Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr., husband of the late Eunice Kennedy, died at the age of ninety-five. 

Shriver was born on November 9, 1915 in Westminster, Maryland. His ancestors, David and Rebecca Shriver settled in Frederick County, Maryland around 1761. They had 8 children, 64 grandchildren and 265 great-grandchildren. The first U.S. Census conducted in 1790 listed 50 families headed by Shrivers.

David Shriver was a signatory of the 1776 Maryland Constitution, and he helped write Maryland’s Declaration of Rights. (Thomas Jefferson borrowed heavily from the document when he composed the Declaration of Independence.)

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Shrivers became prominent members of Maryland’s Catholic establishment, which was centered in Baltimore, the nation’s first Catholic diocese. The family founded numerous organizations and societies including the Catholic Evidence League – dedicated to teaching Church fundamentals to the faithful – and the National Convert League (later the Society of St. Vincent de Paul), which provided financial support to married Protestant ministers who converted to Catholicism.

America’s primate, James Cardinal Gibbons (1834-1921) stayed at the Shriver home in Union Mills, Maryland, during his summer and winter vacations. Sargent was not only baptized by Gibbons, but often served as his altar boy at Masses held in the Shriver family chapel. Shortly before his death, Gibbons said his final Mass on December 9, 1920 at the Shriver home.

After earning bachelor and law degrees from Yale, Sargent Shriver served in the Navy. In 1945, after a brief stint in a New York law firm (Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam, and Roberts), Shriver, who had chaired the Yale Daily News, took a job as a Newsweek editor.

In 1946, he was introduced to the woman he would marry seven years later, Eunice Mary Kennedy. Her father, always on the look out for young talent, hired Shriver to work for Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises and sent him to Chicago where he eventually became manager of the gem of the Kennedy financial empire, the Chicago Merchandise Mart – then the nation’s largest commercial building.

     Mr. Shriver with his brother-in-law and boss, August 1961. 

Shriver was active in Chicago’s Catholic and political circles and went on to serve as president of the city’s Board of Education and the Catholic Interracial Council. He fearlessly tackled the issues of discrimination in housing, hospitals, and education.

His political ambitions, however, were crushed by the Kennedy steamroller. As early as 1948, old Joe nixed Shriver’s move to become an Adlai Stevenson speechwriter. And when he was offered the 1960 Illinois nomination for governor, the Kennedy clan leaned on him to decline. He was also persuaded in 1964 and 1968 to turn down offers to run for vice president on the Democratic ticket.

From 1961 to 1966, Shriver served as director of the last surviving program of the Kennedy presidency, the Peace Corps. Thanks to his efforts, tens of thousands of young Americans served as voluntary teachers and workers in the world’s poorest nations.

Although the Kennedys viewed it as an act of disloyalty, he accepted President Johnson’s offer to become overseer of the “War on Poverty” as head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, which created a host of anti-poverty programs, including dubious ones such as Legal Services for the Poor and the Community Action Program.

Unlike his famous brothers-in-law, Shriver upheld and defended Church teaching in the public square. Although he was a liberal who accepted Commonweal magazine’s interpretations of Vatican II, when it came to abortion he was solidly pro-life. As the Democratic Party’s 1972 vice presidential candidate, and in his unsuccessful 1976 run for his party’s presidential nomination, he refused to bend on abortion.

In a 1976 position paper, he wrote: “I am strongly opposed to abortion. . . . I intend to work in and out of government, as I have for the past decade, for the day when abortion will no longer be looked upon by anyone as a desirable or necessary procedure.” After a four-hour discussion on abortion during the New Hampshire primary campaign,  one participant remarked: “What impressed me about [Shriver] more than anything else was he just never allowed himself to talk about anything but the substance of what was the right thing . . . He never let go of his principles.”

Sargent and Eunice Shriver funded the first international abortion conference and the Georgetown University Kennedy Institute of Ethics to study life issues. They also founded Life Support Centers which Shriver biographer Scott Stossel reports “provided prenatal care and child-rearing instruction; helped mothers find jobs; and generally tried to augment the incentive for teenage mothers not to abort.”

On hearing of Shriver’s death, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, spoke justly: “He changed the world for the better. His commitment to preserving and protecting human life at every stage of existence, especially for the unborn, and working to lift people out of poverty were exceptional gifts of love and humanity . . .”

R. Sargent Shriver, requiescat in pace.

George J. Marlin is an editor of The Quotable Fulton Sheen and the author of
The American Catholic Voter.

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