The Catholic Church in America suffered another grave scandal this weekend. As was the case in the priestly abuse crisis, it was centered in Boston. If you are a Catholic and did not feel distressed and scandalized watching Senator Kennedy’s funeral at Mother of Perpetual Help Church in Boston Saturday, I have to ask in all frankness: why not?
The scandal has nothing to do with his personal sins. I hope he confessed them and was forgiven, as I hope myself to be forgiven. The Church is always generous to sinners who make even the slightest gesture of repentance. In that, she shows that she is not a merely human society bound by certain rules, but the living communion of saints and the presence in this world of the merciful heart of God.
The scandal likewise has nothing to do with partisan politics. If you think it does, as some of the Commentors on Brad Miner’s gentlemanly Friday column believe, you should compare Brad with the New York Times obituary, which felt obliged to record that Ted’s shoulders were “sometimes too narrow” for the task he inherited. And that, contrary to the eulogies, he could be savagely unjust and demagogic, as even some followers admitted (e.g., in the Bork hearings), tarring mere opponents as racists, sexists, and elitists. All such shenanigans are an unfortunate feature of partisan passions, but only of passing importance.
The distress – and the scandal – arise from only one thing: the Church’s failure to show the slightest reservation about the man who, more than any Catholic and perhaps more than any American political figure, has led the pro-abortion forces in Washington. Even worse, his longstanding pro-abortion leadership gave political cover to other Catholic politicians and confused simple lay people. That’s what scandal (in the theological sense) does: it becomes a stumbling block for the faithful about the very truths of the faith.
The American bishops have been admirably clear that the defense of life is not like their other concerns about the poor and social justice. Defense of life occupies a different level. It is the basis for everything else.
Yet most people watching the Kennedy funeral have never heard a word of our bishops’ teachings, except that Catholics are “not single issue voters.” They might with justification believe that you can be a notorious pro-abortion Catholic and still be publicly honored by the Catholic Church. No one mentioned the issue, let alone took steps to make it clear that the Church means business about life.
Some have argued that now is not the time to criticize Edward Kennedy. There will be time enough later. But this is not a matter of criticism. This involves a widespread public misperception of Catholicism – or is it a true perception now? Television coverage of the Mass has spread the image of the Church honoring a well-known Catholic, passionately disrespectful of life. The damage may be irreversible.
If you think human respect should govern this moment, de mortuis and all that, you have a right to your opinion. But the scandal is not about respect towards Ted Kennedy. It’s about the Church’s own self-respect. As Benedict XVI recently reminded us, real charity exists where we respect truth. Some Catholics have argued Kennedy should have been denied Christian burial. That is wrong, even though he never publicly recanted a grave public sin. But could the Church have commended him to God in a way that paid respect to the 50 million aborted souls who were not here to watch the spectacle? She could have, and it’s a tragedy for the Church and America that she did not.
I sympathize with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a good and holy man. If he had tried to limit the Kennedy funeral to a private Mass, he would have had a widespread revolt among both clergy and laity. And the Church would have paid a price at the hands of Massachusetts pols. But maybe the controversy would have been a “teachable” moment as the Catholic professors say.
The Vatican issued very subdued condolences, a signal to those who follow such things, that Rome, for once, was worried how its words would be interpreted. Some also see the small number of bishops and priests at the Mass as an indirect statement of some kind. For the ordinary person, however, the Cardinal was present and Placido Domingo sang Panis angelicus, just as if it were a papal Mass. And Cardinal McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington (who honored Kennedy a few years ago the very week he helped block aid to D.C. Catholic schools) said the graveside prayers.
During one of the television specials about Kennedy’s life, I heard a telling story. A man recounted how the senator arranged for a U. S. Coast Guard cutter to show up in Boston Harbor at his son’s birthday party. It’s the kind of anecdote often told about the much loved senator, yet another example of his delight in kids and gift for knowing how to make them – and many other people – feel good. These stories touch me deeply, as does this whole unfortunate situation, because growing up in New England I had an equally large-hearted Irish uncle of the older Democratic type, who died not long ago.
But it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that the U.S. Coast Guard should not be at anyone’s personal disposal, even in a good cause. Any other rich and influential politician using a public service for a private purpose would have been looked at very differently.
Kennedy had a similar relationship with the Church. He didn’t have much respect for the Church’s proper institutional functions either, but he claimed Catholic privileges when they served his personal projects.
It was an outrage that the Coast Guard allowed itself to be used in this fashion. It is a scandal, one that sadly will have multiple bad consequences, that the Church did the same.