When I think of Edward M. Kennedy (“Teddy” early on before the more respectful “Ted”), I first think of Terry Malloy, the character played by Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront.” Kennedy’s brothers got title shots (one was champ), but, like Terry, Teddy got a “one-way ticket to Palooka-ville!” Did he think, I coulda been a contender? Oh yes.
But unlike Terry, Teddy was no bum, and, despite some astonishing missteps, he got to hang out with the punchy Palookas in the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, that Gleason’s Gym of blow-dried heavyweights, the United States Senate. Indeed, he became the longest-serving senator in Massachusetts history, second-longest in the current Senate (after Robert Byrd, for whom nearly everything in West Virginia is named), and the third-longest since Vice President John Adams pounded the gavel at the Senate’s first session on March 4, 1789. This is remarkable, since in the aftermath of July 18, 1969 the oddsmakers were wagering Kennedy’s political career had sunk as low as his Olds Delmont 88 (and, lest we forget, Miss Mary Jo Kopechne) into that dark Chappaquiddick tidal pool. Mr. Kennedy was thirty-seven when his career died. He announced that he would not seek re-election to the Senate in 1972.
He was reborn when he was re-elected in 1972. Polls overcame his decision to retire to private life, and he never looked back. Questions about his character became moot, and, mirabile dictu, there being no legal consequences following the Chappaquiddick Incident, he found a certain peace in knowing that in congressional wheeler-dealing – as opposed to presidential politics – he was free to be himself without fear of rejection by the voters of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – ever. Well, he did take a half-hearted shot at the presidency in 1980, but after that he was Senator-for-life. And the Nation’s Preeminent Catholic Politician.
Prior to Roe v. Wade, Ted Kennedy had not been a staunch advocate of abortion rights. Quite the opposite. As Anne Hendershott wrote earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal, two years before Roe Kennedy “was still championing the rights of the unborn.” But as his thinking evolved (he earned a 100 percent pro-choice rating from NARAL), you could pretty much take the Church’s position on a given moral issue and reliably predict that Kennedy’s advocacy would be in opposition to it. Same-sex marriage? Kennedy votes yea. Pro-life candidates for the Supreme Court (Rehnquist, Bork, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito)? Kennedy votes nay. (In fairness, he did support Antonin Scalia in 1986.) Adultery? Well, let’s not forget that Miss Kopechne (She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named in stories about Teddy’s death), whom Kennedy said he was escorting to her hotel, had left the party where they’d been without either her purse or her room key. Divorce? He left his first wife in 1983.
All this may be entered – and surely is – in the Book of Life against his salvation, but there were things about the man that even his most vocal opponents found endearing. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) described Kennedy as “like a brother to me,” and John McCain (R-AZ) called Kennedy a “skillful, fair, and generous partner.” He worked with George W. Bush on No Child Left Behind. Upon hearing the news of Kennedy’s death, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said: “No one could have known the man without admiring the passion and vigor he poured into a truly momentous life.” All true. And, given the family tragedies he endured, one may admire his determination to push on. Plus (politics aside) he was probably our history’s most successful Senator.
All Catholics should hope that in the end he received the Sacrament of Anointing, and God’s mercy, and that his soul is with Jesus.
Still, as Elizabeth Scalia once wrote about Sen. Kennedy, “the quiet altruism of a public man is always overshadowed by the noise of his sins.”
And those were very public sins, many of which he defended as a Catholic, and the question for the faithful is this: Who other than Edward Moore Kennedy did as much to debase the public understanding of our faith? Or gave, in the technical sense of the term, grave public scandal? Well, there were the pedophile priests and their ecclesiastical enablers, but when Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Rudy Giuliani and other dissident Catholic politicians, all of them likely excommunicated latae sententiae (and unrepentant to boot), receive Holy Communion at papal Masses during Benedict XVI’s American visit, less discerning Catholics may be forgiven for supposing that political positions which contradict the Magisterium are nonetheless canonically acceptable. One notes in the encomia that flowed freely after Sen. Kennedy’s death how often writers have referred to his support of “Catholic values.” Even his most ardent admirers would not dare assert that he championed Catholic teaching.
And when I think of Edward M. Kennedy and his legacy, I picture him as the chef de cuisine of cafeteria Catholics everywhere. He was the man most responsible for cooking up, sometimes abetted by clerical sous chefs, the corned beef and cabbage that is served, steaming in over-seasoned political broth, as American Catholicism. His sins were scarlet, but are past. The scandal, however, lives on.
And I recall with both pleasure and pain the image of John Paul II shaking his finger at the beret-wearing, Nicaraguan leftist heretic, Ernesto Cardenal. It’s a pleasant image made painful by my inability to recall any American Catholic priest, bishop, archbishop, or cardinal ever publicly scolding Ted Kennedy.
That said, may he rest in peace.