A Tale of Two Kennedys

God rest his soul.

That is the Catholic and charitable thing to say in response to the news of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death.

Kennedy died Aug. 25, a little over a year after being diagnosed with brain cancer. His death brought forth encomiums from people high and low, nostalgic looks back at the history of the closest thing to a royal family in America, a recap of Kennedy’s greatest triumphs and most salacious scandals, and musings on how his death will affect the ongoing debate over health-care reform, an issue the Massachusetts senator held close to his heart.

On many issues, Catholic social teaching seemed to inform his perspective. He was a strong supporter of the civil-rights movement, for example, and championed a “living wage” for workers. His advocacy for an immigration system that would point immigrants toward citizenship recognized the right to migrate for a better life.

Internationally, he also left a positive mark: fostering better relations between the governments of Great Britain and Ireland and working toward a peace accord in Northern Ireland.

But while we applaud his work for social justice, we’re left to wonder why his grounding in Catholic social teaching did not extend to civil rights for the most vulnerable members of our society. Kennedy supported Roe v. Wade, opposed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, and was a chief sponsor of legislation to limit protests outside abortion clinics and to permit the use of federal funds for research projects using fetal tissue.

In January 2008 he endorsed Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, reveling in the prospect of a symbolic end to racial discrimination in the United States but overlooking Obama’s strong pro-abortion record and stands.

What happened to change his early pro-life stance as it was expounded in a 1971 letter that surfaced many years later? “While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, 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,” Kennedy wrote a year and a half before the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade. “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,” he added. “When history looks back at this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.”

Perhaps a clue could be found in that 1971 letter: “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,” he wrote. It was his personal feeling at the time, a feeling that could change, not a recognition of an unchangeable truth.

Kennedy once told an audience that he treasured his Catholic faith, but that he did not assume that “my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society.”

His relativistic sense and selective following of the faith seemed, then, to be in line with his older brother’s declaration to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960. When John F. Kennedy was running for president, there was deep and widespread concern that the Vatican would be calling many of the shots in the Oval Office. JFK put those fears to rest in the speech to the association of Protestant ministers. “I do not speak for my Church on public matters, and my Church does not speak for me,” he said.

JFK’s speech gave rise to a breed of Catholic politicians who would become epitomized by former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo — those who declare they are “personally opposed” to abortion but unwilling or unable to “impose my religious convictions on a pluralistic society.”

Unhappily, the political heirs to the Kennedys and Cuomos now represent a majority of key players among Washington Catholic politicians and Obama appointees: Joseph Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, to name a few.

Interestingly, Ted Kennedy’s death came exactly two weeks after the death of his sister Eunice Kennedy-Shriver, at 88. She was a strong supporter of the mentally disabled, organizing the first Special Olympics in 1968. She was honored by Feminists for Life of America in 1998 as a “Remarkable Pro-Life Woman.”

She was a member of the advisory committee of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group dedicated to electing pro-life women to Congress. She once began a campaign called “One Million for Life” to recruit a million people to adopt unwanted children.

“How do you equate the life of an unborn infant with the social well-being of a mother, a father or a family?” Kennedy-Shriver asked in 1977. “If it is thought that the social well-being of the mother outweighs the rights of fetuses with congenital abnormalities, we do well to remember that more than 99% of abortions are done on normal fetuses.”

One can only wish that her more famous brother had embraced such sound logic. With his energy and passion for justice, a pro-life Ted Kennedy could have left this life with a very different set of credentials. How different the world could have become.