Edward Kennedy’s Catholic Legacy

Former Register Rome correspondent Father Raymond de Souza says Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was a major player in America’s culture wars.

In death Sen. Edward M. Kennedy hardly needs his biography recalled. His life could hardly have been more chronicled. What is more interesting to ask, especially in light of the Catholic faith to which he was so devoted — a family priest was at his bedside when he died — is what life he might have led and how American politics might have been different.

For Kennedy, the judgment that counts for eternity is at hand. Here below, his many public achievements have been lavishly praised. His was the most public of lives — famous for who he was before he was known for what he did — so that his private life was part of the public record. He experienced more than most the truth of those foreboding words of Scripture, that all that is done in secret will be brought to light, and that which is whispered will be shouted from the rooftops. There were few Catholics in America whose successes and sins were more published, discussed and judged. Now, his fellow Catholics surely pray for his merciful judgment.

The public legacy of the Senate’s greatest liberal and the last lion of his pride is a matter for public judgment. During his 47 years in the Senate, he was the most prominent Catholic Democrat in America. Many critics considered him a better Democrat than Catholic. Yet the tragedy of Ted Kennedy is that had he been more faithful to the public implications of his Catholicism, he may have been a more successful leader of the Democratic Party. The culture wars have not been electorally kind to the Democratic Party, and there is perhaps no person more responsible for the culture wars than Ted Kennedy himself.

“In some ways Kennedy’s career was the story of a man who might have been,” wrote Catholic commentator Russell Shaw. “Might have been president of the United States if his shortcomings hadn’t prevented that; might have been a powerful leader of the pro-life movement if he hadn’t turned pro-choice; might have been a model of the Catholic statesman in public life if he hadn’t become a symbol of American Catholicism at odds with the Church.”

What Might Have Been

A broader question is what might have become of American politics if Kennedy has chosen a different path.

By the early ’70s, Richard Nixon had won two presidential elections — the second one the greatest landslide in history — by fashioning a coalition that included cultural conservatives in large numbers. The lifestyle libertinism of the 1960s’ movements which coalesced behind George McGovern’s candidacy in 1972 proved culturally influential but a political liability. After McGovern’s loss and, a few months later, the Roe v. Wade abortion decision, it was still an open question about which direction the Democratic Party would go. Throughout the 1970s, many of the key Democratic leaders were pro-life, as was Kennedy himself up until the Roe decision. Had Kennedy resisted the culturally liberal trends in the Democratic Party, what might have been?

Kennedy’s family legacy, his impregnable position in Massachusetts (he won more than 60% of the vote the year after Chappaquiddick) and his national prominence rendered him immune from the pressures other politicians had to face. He could always choose his own path. Had he chosen to remain economically liberal but culturally conservative, he would have prevented the Democratic Party from embracing the orthodoxy of the unlimited abortion license. Had he remained pro-life the Democratic Party would have had to make place for other pro-life politicians. Had he remained pro-life many others — Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson — would not have abandoned their pro-life positions as the price to be paid for national ambition.

In the 1970s, it was not clear that the Republican Party would become largely pro-life. Party leaders, including Nixon, Gerald Ford, Nelson Rockefeller, George Bush and even Ronald Reagan, favored liberalizing abortion laws. The GOP moved toward a pro-life position in response to the Democratic Party moving in the opposite direction. It was politically advantageous, and it was Kennedy who permitted that advantage to be conceded. By the 1980s what are now called “values voters” were a critical part of Reagan’s coalition. Many of the Reagan Democrats were those who were with Kennedy on economics but could not follow him on abortion and related cultural issues.

The Supreme Court decision on abortion made judicial appointments more politically salient, but confirmations remained largely pro forma affairs — Reagan’s first two appointments were confirmed without a single dissenting vote. But in 1987 Kennedy led the opposition to the nomination of Robert Bork, turning the confirmation process into a brutal, partisan battle. The verb “borking” entered the political lexicon to describe this ugly new version of cultural politics. Democrats would later bitterly complain about Republican tactics on “values,” but it was Kennedy’s prestige that made such politics acceptable.

The ‘Ted Kennedy Problem’

It was two of Kennedy’s fellow Massachusetts politicians who would reap most directly what Kennedy had sown. Both Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004 were defeated in campaigns in which values — not economics, not competence, not even war — were the dominant issues. Religious observance had become the most important predictor of voting behavior. Culture had become a partisan issue. Kennedy’s embrace of moral libertinism facilitated all that. Had he chosen differently he could have stopped the culture wars before they started. Few other politicians ever have the influence to make such a consequential decision.

Indeed, had Kennedy remained pro-life — along with his positions on immigration, health care, poverty, war and peace — he would have entered his senior years as the great Catholic legislator in terms of the welfare state, health care, big government, the peace agenda and the right to life. Remember the famous pastoral letters of the U.S. bishops on defense policy and the economy in the 1980s? They were both well to the left politically, easily in Ted Kennedy territory. If only he had remained pro-life, he would have been the poster boy of the American bishops for a generation.

He didn’t, and so the final five years of his life were marked by an intense and painful debate about how the American bishops should deal with what could suitably be called their “Ted Kennedy problem” — what to do about Catholic politicians who promote abortion rights? Where Kennedy went 30 years ago, many followed. The old lion will be laid to rest as one of the most consequential public figures of his time. Those consequences have been difficult for the Church. That is well known. They have been also difficult for his party, even if the Democrats send him off with a full-throated roar. Catholics will likely maintain a more discreet silence.

Father Raymond J. de Souza was the Register’s Rome correspondent

from 1999 to 2003.

Long Political Career

— 47 years in the Senate

— Advocated for civil rights, workers’ rights, immigration reform and better health care.

— Fostered peace in Northern Ireland.

— Supported Roe v. Wade (although he was previously pro-life).

— Opposed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.

— Sponsored legislation to limit protests outside of abortion clinics.

— Supported using federal funds for embryonic research.

— Opposed Defense of Marriage Act and the Federal Marriage Amendment.