Watching the funeral cortege of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy wind its way up Route 6, then Route 3 and finally through the streets of Boston, I could not help thinking that eloquence of the common man, when it manifests itself, far outstrips any words we writers have to offer. Along the highway, still an hour from Boston, people had pulled off the road, gotten out of their cars and stood by the side of the highway, applauding as the hearse drove by. In downtown Boston, the crowds appeared to be five or six deep in parts and the response was the same: applause for the Senator and a wave for the family. I could not help but think: Is there any other Senator in the land whose death would produce such an outpouring? Is there any other Catholic?
Last night, the crowds at the JFK Library stretched around the block and into the early morning hours. I saw a young man of Cub Scout age salute the flag on the casket. Many, many people made the Sign of the Cross as they passed. There were many people in wheelchairs, people who were especially grateful for the Senator’s work on behalf of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There were many Latinos, grateful for the Senator’s defense of immigrants’ rights.
The rightwing hasn’t been this loud and obnoxious since Notre Dame. The Senator’s death has put them in a lather. I half expect to turn on the radio and hear the words, "Now, live from the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan, here’s Father Coughlin." Yesterday I wrote about some of the more indecent examples of criticism directed against the Senator while his body was still warm. Alas, it has not stopped.
The group Human Life International issued a statement upon the Senator’s death that is similar to those noted yesterday but it also insists that Kennedy be denied a Catholic funeral. "It is up to God to judge Senator Kennedy’s soul. We, as rational persons, must judge his actions, and his actions were not at all in line with one who values and carefully applies Church teaching on weighty matters. Ted Kennedy’s positions on a variety of issues have been a grave scandal for decades, and to honor this "catholic" champion of the culture of death with a Catholic funeral is unjust to those who have actually paid the price of fidelity."
Having pledged not to judge the state of the Senator’s soul, they write: "Every indication of Senator Kennedy’s career, every public appearance, every sound bite showed an acerbic, divisive and partisan political hack for whom party politics were much more infallible than Church doctrines."
And, to make the rightwing paranoia complete, enter stage left, President Barack Obama. "We now find out that President Obama will eulogize the Senator at his funeral, an indignity which, following on the heels of the Notre Dame fiasco, leaves faithful Catholics feeling sullied, desecrated and dehumanized by men who seem to look for opportunities to slap the Church in the face and do so with impunity simply because they have positions of power." I like the mention of "faithful Catholics," the implication being that people like me, or those thousands who lined the funeral route yesterday, are unfaithful.
Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe recently said he was worried that the "Catholic community risks isolating itself from the rest of the country" because of the demonization of political opponents. He noted that a majority of the American bishops do not support the "in your face" rhetoric and tactics of some of their colleagues who denounce anyone who doesn’t agree with them. And, he noted that by working with people who disagree with the Church rather than simply denouncing them, the Church in New Mexico was able to help that state’s legislature pass a ban on capital punishment. The full interview is a must-read.
The funeral of Senator Kennedy will be a moment to reflect upon the divisiveness of our nation’s political life in recent years, and of how those political divisions have begun to divide the Church, even the Episcopal bench. It can’t be stated too often: There are several steps, all of them complicated, in assessing whether a political stance is a sin or not, even if it is wrong. And, it can’t be reaffirmed too often that while we all strive for integration, the parts of very few men’s lives fit together into a neat package. Finally, it must be defended again and again: Different consciences can reach different conclusions in good faith.