The National Catholic Review

The phone rang at 6:03 a.m. My editors at the Tablet wanted to know if I could write something quickly about the legacy of Sen. Ted Kennedy who died this morning. The request is not that different from being asked to give a synopsis of World War II, or the Pauline Epistles, in a couple of hours and in 800 words. The phone call took longer than usual because I had to keep composing myself. For the first thing about Sen. Kennedy’s death is that it is personal if you are a politically engaged Catholic. His family touched ours in ways few other families do, even neighbors. How many Catholic families have a picture of Jack Kennedy on the wall next to the crucifix? And, the last one standing was Teddy. He carried on the legacy of his brothers. He was the champion, year in and year out, of so many causes at the heart of Catholic social teaching. The first thing to do in the face of this loss is to cry.

Ted Kennedy stood out from his peers in almost every way: his family was more illustrious, his rhetoric was more exciting, his legislative career more accomplished. He voted for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act which changed the lives of black Americans for the better. He voted for Medicare and Medicaid which changed the lives of the poor and the elderly for the better. He voted – he actually wrote – Title IX, which changed the lives of female athletes for the better. He voted for SCHIPS which changed the lives of poor children for the better. The world is a better place because of Ted Kennedy’s 47 years in the U.S. Senate.

Kennedy was wrong on abortion. He flipped from being pro-life to pro-choice in the 1970s, buying into a set of arguments that were weak then and seem weaker today. He was not alone. Ed Muskie, Al Gore, Jr., Dennis Kucinich, all were pro-lifers who flipped, largely in the face of political pressure from women’s groups who saw abortion as a part of the women’s liberation movement. Curiously, Gov. Ella Grasso – the first female elected Governor of a state in her own right - was one of the few Northeastern liberal Democrats who remained true to her pro-life convictions.

The final gift of Ted Kennedy to the nation was to pass the torch of liberalism to Barack Obama, whom he endorsed during the primaries at a critical time. It was breathtaking to see this Irish Catholic embrace a black man as his political heir. Those of us who remember the horrible racism in Boston during the struggle over busing could scarcely believe our eyes.

I shall leave it to others to discuss Kennedy’s personal struggles. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. For all he did to improve the lives of so many Americans, it is enough to offer the prayer, Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.

Comments

Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 10:41am
[P]ro-lifers ... flipped, largely in the face of political pressure from women’s groups who saw abortion as a part of the women’s liberation movement.
Precisely the political problem faced by Catholic Democrats: the secular feminist philosophy that elevates abortion rights to sacramental standing as a sign of women's freedom from male oppression. Politically speaking, you would find it very difficult indeed to get support in Democratic politics without kowtowing on this issue, for much the same reason as the social right-wingers force Republicans to kowtow to them.
Anonymous | 8/26/2009 - 11:05pm
As always, there are a lot of haters posting who forget their own hypocrisies.  I was a kid during the halcyon Camelot era, & remember the hope & inspiration they inspire-& still do in me.  The Kennedys' record of public service, while growing up economically privileged, is a wonderful chapter in American history.  In my Irish American home, a painting hung on the wall:  Christ in the center with his arms on the shoulders of Jack Kennedy & Good Pope John XXIII.  The title read:  ''My Beloved Johns.''  I'm sick of the one issue anti-abortion Catholics whose blinders prevent any balanced view.  Ted Kennedy lapsed on the Church's pro-life agenda when it comes to the unborn; & his amazing commitment to the rights of those born & underprivileged/downtrodden is more than inspiring.  Why can't people see the great good the man accomplished, along with his personal, tragic flaws?  The Kennedy story is like something out of the classic Greek tragedy, & because he enjoyed some length of years that his brothers did not-there is some measure of redemption.  How about less judmentalism & more prayerfulness for God's mercy upon his soul, & God's comfort/consolation for his family.  May he rest in peace!
Anonymous | 8/26/2009 - 4:16pm
Naturally we pray for the repose of Teddy's soul. But with respect to his "legacy" one must analyse what effects a policy, law, or program has on the intended recipients before giving a promoter credit. 
Teddy wrote "No Child Left Behind". Bush received all the blame for all that went wrong...while Teddy received all the praise for all the good intentions. Being 'for' something has consequences. Those of you who were 'against' our involvement in South Vietnam and wanted us to pull out, and then encouraged the Congress to de-fund the South Vietnam regime, must likewise accept some moral responsibility for the aftermath of April 30, 1975.... millions killed, millions died at sea fleeing Communism, millions trapped for the last 34 years under a repressive regime. All made possible by Teddy Kennedy and his allies.
Being for the Civil Rights Act or other bills doesnt' absolve one of the requirement to insist equal justice under the law is sought for, for all Americans. And yet, what do we see in the bastions of American polity run by the political allies of Teddy? Halcyon utopias of peaceful citizens? No. We see the top dozen metropolitan areas that have been run entirely by Democrats for over 40 years suffering from endemic corruption, crumbling infrastructure, failing school systems, rampant crime, social decay.... no improvement in the lives of the poor despite government largess and ever bigger bureaucracy. But being "for" programs that obstensibly are to "help the poor" gives one moral credit....without needing to actually show evidence of improvement in their lot.
If you think Government exists to redistribute wealth so as to improve the lives of the poor (making them, NOT POOR?) fine. Show me where this has worked for the majority as opposed to a handful of outliers. If it doesn't work, then why honor someone as wonderfully moral for being such a proponent?   
 
Anonymous | 8/26/2009 - 1:21pm
Dan, I understand your frustration over abortion but that
doesn't change the positive leadership Senator Kennedy gave to vital legislation
that furthered justice in this nation. He was a dedicated, tireless worker in
the trenches of our excruciatingly slow process of continually creating a
Nation of just practice.
Anonymous | 8/26/2009 - 2:39pm
Michael Bindner, why do you have to politicize everything?  Negative comments about someone's death are certainly unacceptable.  This is something done by sick people whether they are Republicans or Democrats.  You should look at some of the nasty comments made by Democrats when President Reagan died. Let us pray that God will be merciful in judging our brother Ted and that God will be merciful in judging all of us.
 
 
Anonymous | 8/26/2009 - 12:31pm
Ted Kennedy's abortion problem is one shared by most Catholic politicians on the left.  The problem is not their position but the way they explain it.  The Church has a position on legislation liberalizing abortion, however this position is not applicable in the United States where abortion laws were struck down as unconstitutional, largely based on the plain language of the 14th Amendment and on the lack of state government jurisdiction on the issue.  There is no "abortion law" to support or oppose until someone in Congress pursues a federal measure granting the unborn legal recognition under its 14th Amendment enforcement powers.  Of course, if this happenned, the National Right to Life Committee and the Republican Party could no longer demagogue the issue at election time.  Kennedy and the current generation of Catholic and non-Catholic libreral politicians (the President among them) correctly see that the best way to reduce abortion is to enact a more economically just society, especially in the areas of educational opportunity and health care reform.  There is still a ways to go, especially with regard to living wages, but at least there is more awareness of the issues.
Anonymous | 8/26/2009 - 12:19pm
"How many Catholic families have a picture of Jack Kennedy on the wall next to the crucifix?"
None. Not one that I know of, and I'm over 50.
Careful not to extrapolate from your particular demographic to the rest of the 62 million Catholics in the United States, most of whom do not live in the Northeast and are not of the age group to fall under the Kennedy spell.
And really, it's a tragedy. It's an apt opportunity for Catholics involved in public life to think about the use of their gifts and talents. Just think if Kennedy had remained true to his initial pro-life convictions. Just THINK what a difference that would have made.
Liberal and Democratic Catholics like to scatter blame for the separation of the pro-life and social justice elements of Church teaching. People like Kennedy should be #1 on the list to be blamed - for talking about the poor and the least among us while ejecting the unborn from those groups. Just THINK the different landscape if Kennedy had been consistent.
Anonymous | 8/26/2009 - 10:40am
"The world is a better place because of Ted Kennedy’s 47 years in the U.S. Senate."
Tens of millions of children who never lived might disagree. He not only accomodated abortion. He became an evangelist for the radical pro-abortion faction of American politics.
Anonymous | 8/26/2009 - 10:02am
When I was an intern working for the freshman Senator from Iowa when I first came to Washington in 1984, Senator Kennedy was in the office across the hall. He always had a nod and a smile for me when we passed eachother in the hall. It didn't ...matter that I was just an intern from the other party. He was a kind and decent man and will be missed. God rest his soul and bless his family.
 
I was listening to C-SPAN this morning and some of the comments by snarky Republicans turned my stomach.  Have they no decency?  It shows a party on its last legs.
Anonymous | 8/26/2009 - 9:48am
What I most appreciate about this post is Michael Sean Winters' refusal to categorize Ted Kennedy as ''flawed'' (as the New York Times headline put it a few minutes ago) when Kennedy's body is barely cold. Kennedy's massive accomplishments deserve mention first, surely. And yes, for Irish Catholics like Winters and me, seeing Ted Kennedy endorse Barack Obama had to be one of the most inspiring events of our lives, something that may help to heal the memory of watching our fellow Catholics turn out in mobs to stop integration.
Anonymous | 8/26/2009 - 9:44am
There is much to admire about Senator Kennedy. His efforts have greatly affected the lives of Americans for the better, and I pray that he rests in peace. Still, I cannot forget that he failed to use his great skills and energy for the benefit of the unborn, and his blindness in this area is all the more troubling because though he was once pro-life, he flip-flopped when pro-choice became the more politically expedient path in the Democratic Party. His stature in the party undoubtedly influenced many other Catholic politiicians to do the same.   
Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 10:00am
Milbo, I was commenting on the very nasty comments I heard on C-SPAN in my first post and addressing Michael's comments on abortion in the second.  I was certainly not speaking ill of the Senator.