Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Playing God 1: Teddy Kennedy's Funeral

[Jesus] then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. "Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity--greedy, dishonest, adulterous--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.' But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.' I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14, NAB)

For some reason, the controversy over Senator Kennedy's funeral arrangements last week brought this parable to mind. I'm Catholic but I hadn't really thought there was anything to be debated. Kennedy was a Catholic and he would have a funeral Mass and burial suitable for someone with a long and distinguished career in the public service. Nothing to discuss, I thought, until I saw the following headline: A Catholic Funeral for Ted Kennedy?

Ed Peters, a respected Canon lawyer, was finding it necessary to offer a defense of Kennedy's right to a Catholic funeral under Canon Law (1983 CIC 1184). Peters' conclusion? "Now, any man with a 100% rating from NARAL (to highlight just the tip of the iceberg of Teddy's decades-long campaign against natural rights) has, to put it mildly, the burden of proof in seeking a Catholic funeral (okay, technically, his executors have the burden of proof, but you see the point) in that notorious pro-aborts seem to be "manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful." ..."Unless, that is, "they gave some sign of repentance before death." And there is at least some evidence that Ted Kennedy did just that." So he gave a green light to the ceremony.

I wondered why Peters felt he had to make a pronouncement on the issue and found that a number of conservative pro-life Catholics were arguing against a public Catholic funeral for Senator Kennedy:

Thomas Euteneuer, president of Human Life International: "We must, as a matter of precept, pray for the salvation of heretical Catholics like Senator Edward Kennedy, but we do not have to praise him, let alone extol him with the full honors of a public Catholic funeral and all the adulation that attends such an event...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...It is not enough for Kennedy to have been a "great guy behind the scenes" as we have seen him referred to even by his political opponents. It is also not praiseworthy to put a Catholic rhetorical veneer on his leftist politics that did nothing to advance true justice as the Church sees it or to advance the peace of Christ in this world..." The statement goes on with more pronouncements along the same lines but you get the idea: Enteneuer thinks he knows what it means to be a good, faithful Catholic and that Kennedy isn't.

John-Henry Westen, editor of LifeSite News: "Saturday's grandiose Catholic funeral for Senator Ted Kennedy has the potential to be a scandal that will make Notre Dame's Obama Day a walk in the park. With all four living former Presidents in attendance and an address from President Barack Obama, the funeral is set to be a royal crowning, right inside a Catholic Church, of a man who betrayed the most fundamental moral teachings of the faith...What example will this give to Catholics and the rest of the world looking in? It will surely belie the Catholic teachings on the sanctity of life and sexuality. "Surely," they will say, "if one of the most vociferous proponents of abortion and homosexuality in politics is so feted in the Church, the Church cannot possibly regard abortion as murder." Would anyone so honor one who so advocated what the church officially considers an "unspeakable crime"?"

These are but two of the many right-wing Catholic pundits and bloggers who appointed themselves the self-righteous judges of Senator Kennedy's entitlement to a Catholic burial. Reuters Faith World blog even took an informal online poll on the subject. As of today, with 2,597 votes cast, 57% concluded that Kennedy should have a Catholic funeral, but an impressive 42% judged him unworthy of the rite.

The funeral and burial proceeded regardless under the care of two of our cardinals who have been most compassionate towards the poor and the immigrant community, as Kennedy himself was: Seán O'Malley, OFM Cap in Boston and Theodore McCarrick at Arlington National Cemetery (ably assisted by local priest and pro-immigrant activist Fr. Gerry Creedon). And the criticisms continued.

EWTN News Director Raymond Arroyo took the two cardinals to task: "The prayer intercessions at the funeral mass, the endless eulogies, the image of the Cardinal Archbishop of Boston reading prayers, and finally Cardinal McCarrick interring the remains sent an uncontested message: One may defy Church teaching, publicly lead others astray, deprive innocent lives of their rights, and still be seen a good Catholic, even an exemplary one. The casual viewer is tempted to think that Catholicism has become a Church of externals where core doctrines and major teachings are as malleable as they are in the nearest Protestant community. Or worse, to think it all a hollow show."

In the end, the quiet semi-private graveside service was, for me, the most moving part and, in particular the reading of Senator Kennedy's final letter to the Pope which Arroyo so disliked. Kennedy talks humbly about his life and faith and asks the Pontiff's prayers:

"Most Holy Father,

I asked President Obama to personally hand deliver this letter to you. As a man of deep faith himself, he understands how important my Roman Catholic faith is to me and I am so deeply grateful to him.

I hope this letter finds you in good health. I pray that you have all of God’s blessings as you lead our church and inspire our world during challenging times.

I am writing with deep humility to ask that you pray for me as my own health declines. I was diagnosed with brain cancer over a year ago and although I am undergoing treatment, the disease is taking its toll on me.

I am 77-years-old and preparing for the next passage of life.

I’ve been blessed to be part of a wonderful family and both my parents, specifically my mother, kept our Catholic faith at the center of our lives.

That gift of faith has sustained and nurtured and provided solace to me in the darkest hours. I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith I have tried to right my past.

I want you to know, your Holiness, that in my 50 years of elected office I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I’ve worked to welcome the immigrant, to fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education. I’ve opposed the death penalty and fought to end war. Those are the issues that have motivated me and have been the focus of my work as a U.S. Senator.

I also want you to know that even though I am ill, I am committed to do everything I can to achieve access to health care for everyone in my country. This has been the political cause of my life.

I believe in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field and I’ll continue to advocate for it as my colleagues in the Senate and I work to develop an overall national health policy that guarantees health care for everyone.

I’ve always tried to be a faithful Catholic, Your Holiness. And though I have fallen short through human failings I’ve never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings of my faith.

I continue to pray for God’s blessings on you and on our church and would be most thankful for your prayers for me.”

"I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Photo: Senator Ted Kennedy's grave one day after the burial (courtesy JuanMM)


  1. How many catholic non public figures would deserve a catholic funeral if we knew their personal private lives?
    Did John Kennedy deserve a catholic funeral at St. Matthews cathedral in Washington D.C.? You know what I mean.
    I don’t approve of abortion myself and I don’t support some of the stands that democrats and or liberals may take on certain family values, but I don’t have a problem in considering medical assisted end of life or the death penalty in certain cases, so that makes me a bad catholic and non deserving of a funeral as such, when the time comes.
    But I am certain that Ted Kennedy, in his heart, did not approve of abortion and being as he was, as most of the Kennedys are, great family people, valued human life at its max.
    But he was a legislator, a liberal one, and as such he didn’t think (if I may presume to speak for him) that the state has the right to impose certain laws upon the personal right to choose. Yes, I know, we have to consider the unborn and that is my problem with it.

    The Catholic Church should be the equivalent of the Mahayana Buddhist branch, the open and welcoming wide door for all. The precepts are there, the teachings of Jesus are there, the sacraments are there, the fellowship is there, the exemplary lives of great saints and modern catholic men and women are there. Those that come in, can progress as much or as little as they wish.
    The faith is not a static monolithic feeling of “having it all” and being perfect. We are not show off Pharisees that look so good at the door of the temple; we are humble sinners, and imperfect potential little Christ that strive to get better. Let those that want to come and be a part of the mystical body of the church, come in and join efforts together.

    I am grateful to R.B. for having included Ted’s letter to the Pope in this posting. I assure you, I was not a big Kennedy follower neither I have been too much involved in politics, but when I read this letter, I wept and I knew that he was prepared to die as a good Christian. Imperfect human, but he went as a perfect Christian catholic.
    Humble and with his heart oriented towards Christ.

  2. Thank you, JuanMM, you have captured something very important here. Who among us "deserves" a Catholic funeral? Please step up and identify yourself if you are convinced you have led a life that is morally superior to Sen. Kennedy.