Senator Edward M. Kennedy was far from the perfect man. In fact, his infamous actions at Chappaquiddick Island in 1969, which led to the death of the young Mary Jo Kopechne, he called at the time “indefensible.” I agree. Less remarked-upon over the last few days has been his participation in a Palm Beach bacchanal, in 1991, which led to the rape trial of his nephew William Kennedy Smith. While Smith was acquitted, details of the sordid night were a stain on the senator’s reputation. Finally, I disagreed with him on his stance on abortion “rights.”
But this should not blind us to the immense, and perhaps unprecedented, amount of good that this public servant has done for our country during his astonishing 46 years in the Senate. Much of his roster of legislative accomplishments reads like a list of Catholic social teaching in action. This morning on “Good Morning America,” the show began scrolling through, rapidly, a list of legislation he either sponsored or shepherded—from bills on civil rights, to immigration reform, to food and assistance for the poor, to help for the disabled. The list was so long that they had to cut to a commercial.
But I want to focus on something else: redemption.
A few years ago, I was directing a retreat with a pastoral associate in a Jesuit parish in New York, for young adults. The theme was the saints, and how we are all called to holiness. (Don’t worry: I’m not proposing the late senator for canonization.) My friend began to talk about the long and complicated life of Dorothy Day, the American-born founder of the Catholic Worker movement. As is well known, Dorothy, as her friends called her, had an abortion in her early life, something she regretted for the rest of her days. My friend said this, “Imagine all the good that would have never been done if Dorothy had said, “I had an abortion. What can God do with me?”
That quote came to mind when I saw the famous pictures of the submerged car at Chappaquiddick in the newspapers today. Senator Kennedy’s political career was considered ended then: how could anyone recover? He appealed publicly to his Massachusetts constituents: Should he resign? It was a sinful act that, I would suspect, haunted him. (I more than suspect it, particularly after reading in a just-published interview with his biographer over how pained the senator was at not being able to take Communion between the time of his divorce and his annulment. Whether or not you agreed with him, here was a man who took conscience seriously.) Ultimately, he decided to continue as a public servant.
Imagine all the good that would have never gotten done—for the poor, especially—if he had said, “I have sinned; what can God do with me?”
At the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola calls believers to reflect upon their own deep sinfulness. Typically this isn’t hard for people—our sins are “always before us,” as the psalms say. But, ironically, this also evokes a sense of deep gratitude, as we see how blessed we are to be loved and sustained by God even in our own flawed humanity, with our limitations, our outright sinfulness. This helps us us see our failings even more. “In the sunshine of God’s love,” said one spiritual director, “we begin to see our shadows.”
Jesuits have an expression for this: we are all “loved sinners.”
Senator Kennedy was not perfect. But that did not stop him from doing a world of good for the poor and marginalized in this country and around the world. Those photos of Chappaquiddick, the testimony from that rape trial, and his support for abortion must be placed alongside 46 years of dedicated work for this country. And, by his own admission, the Gospels were directly related to a great many of his legislative accomplishments. In that same interview mentioned above, his biographer said, “I once asked him why someone as well off as him was so interested in the poor and the sick, and he said it was his mother's Catholic teaching: the Sermon on the Mount and the passage from Luke that to those who much is given, much is expected.”
Imagine all the good that would have never gotten done if this “loved sinner” had not sought redemption.
James Martin, SJ