The National Catholic Review

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 

Comments

Anonymous | 8/28/2009 - 11:50pm
Fine balanced piece, Fr. Martin.  Kennedy was human, he sinned AND so have we.  Let God judge.  ''forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us''.  A mighty fine sentence for pharisees to remember.
Anonymous | 8/28/2009 - 3:15pm
Patrick, if the hierarchical church is confused about colors, we can in good conscience disagree.  In the early Church, the Spirit in prophesy was a recognized gift.  To deny it in our age is a sin against Her.
Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 9:23pm
Dear Ann,
With respect, and I usually don't reply to this kind of thing: But when you said I'm "almost nominating him for sainthood," you may want to refer to what I wrote, which said, "I'm not proposing the late senator for sainthood."
James Martin, SJ
Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 8:50pm
Listen to yesterday's DIane Rehm show. Go to 30:25. Listen to Ed Klein reveal that one of Ted Kennedy's favorite topics for jokes was Chappaquidick. He always wanted to know if people had heard any new ones.
What a great guy.
http://wamu.org/programs/dr/09/08/26.php#28408
Anonymous | 8/28/2009 - 2:34pm
Also, to temper the gloss that is being put on the Senator's career by those who write for this website, here is a Catholic response to the Senator's death:
[url=http://www.hli.org/index.php?option=com_acajoom&act=mailing&task=view&listid=2&mailingid=666]http://www.hli.org/index.php?option=com_acajoom&act=mailing&task=view&listid=2&mailingid=666[/url]
Anonymous | 8/28/2009 - 2:17pm
Above, Anne B and I communicated our thoughts to one another in a way I sincerely appreciate - the give and take, a clarification.  
And now something otherwise in these comments.  Father Martin has pointed out that he said the exact opposite of what he was in a comment being accused of; he restated that he has not proposed Sen. Kennedy for sainthood. And along comes Patrick attacking this clarification, as ''verbal duplicity.'' Patrick claims Father has said one thing but meant - Obamalike - another!   I say a gentleman's apology is called for.
But then I was raised differently.  Not to speak ill of the dead... nor of good and holy priests.  It is a sad time for me - and I would call myself ''middle aged'' - that there is so much division and acrimony among Catholics.
Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 5:50pm
"Imagine all the good that would have never gotten done if this “loved sinner” had not sought redemption."
I noticed the same type of comment on MS Winter's earlier post. Are you both really suggesting that these bills would never have been passed without him?  I have no doubt someone else would have sponsored or pushed through all of the bills that he worked on. 
I bear Ted Kennedy no ill-will, I hope he rests in peace. But almost nominating him for sainthood for just doing his job and pushing the notion that he was a "devout" Catholic is not enough for this former Catholic, now agnostic, to join in the love fest.
Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 4:18pm
cgreen, perhaps I ought to have prefaced my comment by saying Fr. Martin's reflection was a refreshing change from much of what I've read (because it was).  My point- perhaps not well conveyed- is that in the end our good works are not a stairway to heaven nor are our repented sins a block to heaven.  And yes , indeed, let us ask God to give his justice and mercy to Sen. Kennedy.
Anonymous | 8/28/2009 - 9:46am
With respect to both you and Ann, Fr. Martin, I think what Ann means is that it's one to say "I'm not suggesting X" and then go ahead and do many things that suggest X.  It's the strategy that President Obama has taken up that has worked so effectively in winning minds to his cause: verbal duplicity.
And, in light of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, I suggest that the real lesson to be learned from the life of Sen. Ted Kennedy is as follows:
"We should always be ready to accept this principle: I will believe that the white that I see is black if the hierarchial Church defines it so."
 
Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 12:00pm
I feel that, with rare but notable exceptions, the Catholic responses to Sen. Kennedy's death have been of two extremes.  One side is utterly convinced that no matter what his transgressions, his work overshadows the deficiencies of his character.  The other side seems equally convinced that his repeated transgressions were so great that there is little chance that he repented.  Both opinions belittle both God and man.  Sin is real and when we gloss over it, we gloss over the sacrifice of God on the Cross in repentance for our sins.  Kennedy's sins (or mine or anyone else's) aren't "cancelled" by his (or my or anyone else's) work, but only by the grace of Jesus Christ.  I think it is fair to say that on abortion, Sen. Kennedy's stance went far beyond "rights" but on ensuring unqualified support for government (read: funded by you and me) funding of Planned Parenthood and defending the barbarous practice of partial birth abortion, aptly named 'near-infanticide' by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.  There is no way to look at his legacy on abortion but with deep sorrow especially in light of what he once wrote to a correspondent just after New York State legalized abortion: "it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its
earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized - the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old".  What happened to that Ted Kennedy?
But I also take Jesus at his word, that he will chase after all his sheep who are on a wayward path as a Good Shepherd does.  No one is beyond redemption.  In high school, I debated in favor of legalized abortion without restriction.  Were it not for God's clear intervention in my life, I easily may have been a fervent supporter of Planned Parenthood today!  So, I hope that Sen. Kennedy received many graces as his earthly life ended and commended his flawed self to God's mercy.  I hope to do the same one day. RIP.
Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 11:43am
An excellent reflection in so many ways.  I would draw a slight distinction between Day and Kennedy, however, on the matter of legalized abortion on demand.
For some reason we can't fully know, Kennedy turned his back on the unborn sometime in the mid-70s, and actively worked to promote and defend a woman's "right" to kill her unborn child.  He was in a perfect position to defend the rights of the unborn on a national level, but he left them to fend for themselves.  I'm relatively sure that he is seeing the error of his ways on this issue right now, for we know that Jesus will ask us, "what did you do for the least of my brothers?"  Kennedy, Fr. Drinan, among others, needlessly advocated the maintenance of abortion on demand.  It is a mystery that men of such high intelligence could have done so, could have been so terribly wrong.
Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 11:26am
With respect Fr. James, we can also argue conversely.  If Ted stepped down & was replaced by someone else who opposed abortion, then there would have been less murders and fewer offenses to God.  It is not like he is the only one with a predilection for the poor and the oppressed;  even Mao & Lenin alleviated the lives of the masses.  What would have been good is if he served the poor including the unborn and the nation as an expression of his service to God.
Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 2:40pm
It is fine to discuss the "Catholic responses" to Kennedy's passing but with respect to this fine piece by James Martin, certainly the sin has been noted, and without ever claiming that his "work overshadows his deficiencies." It simply showed what God can do with us, sinful though we are!  And let's praise God for that.    The reasons Kennedy was (like all of us) a "loved sinner" are truly well said. Thank you, Father James Martin!   I myself am troubled by the rush to JUDGMENT by so many.  Jesus himself told us we could leave that to God, and to his justice and mercy I prayerfully commend the soul of Edward M. Kennedy, a fine Senator who served this nation well.
Anonymous | 8/27/2009 - 2:07pm
Here's a bit from an article about Ted Kennedy in the Boston Globe ...
"Now is a time to think, too, of the millions of people with cancer
whose treatments were developed with billions of research dollars for
which Kennedy was the leading — and most relentless — advocate. Of the
people with the AIDS virus for whom Kennedy was instrumental in
securing government funding that now covers half of all Americans
living with HIV. Of the millions of people with disabilities whose
lives were transformed by his advocacy for the Americans with
Disabilities Act. And of the tens of millions of Americans whose
immigration to the United States from continents other than Europe
would not have been possible without the Immigration Act of 1965 that
Kennedy sponsored."
- http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/08/26/edward_kennedy_1932_2009/
He wasn't perfect, but he did do good work, for which I'm grateful.