FATHER BRIAN HARRISON, O.S. REFLECTS ON THE SCANDAL OF THE TED KENNEDY FUNERAL IN A LETTER TO HIS FRIENDS
As a Roman Catholic priest, I feel a duty in conscience today to register, to the couple of hundred people to whom I have ready access, my emphatic dissent from a message that was projected around the nation and the globe this morning to millions of viewers and listeners by certain other members of the Roman Catholic clergy.
Kennedy’s Funeral Mass is a Scandal
I refer to this morning’s televised funeral Mass, celebrated in Boston’s Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, for the recently deceased Senator Edward Moore Kennedy. It was a Mass I regard as a scandal comparable to, if not worse than, the scandal given several months ago when the nation’s most prestigious ‘Catholic’ university bestowed an honorary doctorate upon Barack Hussein Obama, the most pro-abortion and ‘pro-gay’ president in U.S. history.
Why, you ask, should a Catholic priest raise such objections to a Catholic funeral for a Catholic legislator? Well, I am afraid this funeral was no ordinary Catholic funeral. For to those innumerable viewers and listeners of many religions (or none) who were aware of Sen. Kennedy’s public, straightforward, radical, long-standing, and (as far as we know) unrepented defiance of his own Church’s firm teaching about the duty of legislators to protect unborn human life and resist the militant homosexual agenda, this morning’s Mass, concelebrated by several priests, presided over Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, and adorned by a eulogy from the aforesaid U.S. President, effectively communicated a tacit but very clear message: the Church does not really take too seriously her own ‘official’ doctrines on these matters! I feel impelled, therefore, to make known to anyone willing to read these lines that there are many other representatives of the Catholic Church, such as the undersigned, who take those doctrines very seriously indeed.
How would our Church leaders act if they really did take seriously an official Church position from which a prominent deceased Catholic had publicly dissented? To answer that question, we need only imagine a situation in which some well-known Catholic legislator had for years supported the Church’s social teaching ‘across the board’, in regard to human life, marriage, compassion toward the poor and underprivileged, etc., but had then, in old age, lapsed into supporting some ideological position that was strongly opposed not only by the Church, but also by the dominant Western elites in government, law, education, commerce and the media.
Suppose, for instance, that he had come to endorse white supremacism or holocaust denial. Now, when the moment for this Catholic legislator’s funeral came, could we imagine for one moment that our cardinals, bishops and other leading clergy, mindful of this man’s sterling and thoroughly orthodox contributions to the common good over so many years in Congress, would ‘compassionately’ overlook his latter-day lapse into racism or antisemitism? Would they agree to give him a free pass in regard to this defect? Would they speak and act as if it were non-existent? Would they grant him a televised funeral Mass in a large basilica, presided over by a cardinal, in which he would be publicly eulogized by both family and public figures?
These questions really answer themselves. Of course none of that would occur! The local bishop might go as far as allow our hypothetical Catholic racist or antisemite a Church funeral, if it was known that (like Senator Kennedy) he had confessed sacramentally to a priest before death. However, the bishop would allow the use of church property for this funeral on the strict condition that only close personal family and friends would be admitted. All media transmission or even presence during the service itself would surely be forbidden. (It would, of course, be unnecessary for the bishop to ask his fellow bishops and other high Church dignitaries not to
attend the service; for all of them, like the bishop himself, would already prefer to be anywhere else on earth than at the funeral of one who had lapsed so unspeakably from society’s ruling canons of acceptable behavior.) Yes, society’s canons. There, I am afraid, lies the difference between our two scenarios. Is it that official Catholic doctrine is incomparably more opposed to racism and antisemitism than it is to abortion and sodomy? Not at all. The big difference is simply that most members of the Catholic hierarchy in Western society today – and there are of course a number of honorable exceptions – are lacking in prophetic courage. They are ready and eager to take vigorous and resolute public disciplinary action only against those deviations from Church teaching which also happen to be excoriated by the cultural and media elites. But if it is our prelates themselves who will be excoriated by those elites – as would certainly have occurred had they required for Ted Kennedy’s funeral the kind of severe restraint we envisaged
above for that of our hypothetical bigot – then all eagerness for just discipline will evaporate as fast as dew in the morning sun. “Pastoral Compassion”, “forgiveness”, “tolerant respect” and “Christian charity” will now be instantly invoked as reasons for cloaking in total silence the public enormities committed decade after decade by an ecclesially heterodox but socially orthodox legislator.
So, It’s St. Kennedy Now?
So it was, in this morning’s funeral Mass, that the homilist, Fr. Mark Hession (pastor of Kennedy’s Cape Cod parish), made his sermon a eulogy about what a wonderful Catholic Christian Ted was, assuring us that we could be “confident” that he is already with Jesus in glory. So it was that the principal celebrant, Fr. Donald Monan, S.J., Chancellor of Boston College, not only repeatedly told those present – and the whole watching world – that Sen. Kennedy was a man of “faith and prayer”, with a deep devotion to the Eucharist, but also assured us that this “faith and prayer” in private was precisely what inspired and motivated his public policies, so that there was (surprise, surprise) a real integration and unity between his private and public life! Well, a lot of us didn’t quite manage to see any private-public unity based on Roman Catholic principles. On the contrary, Kennedy’s huge political influence, based on both the family’s prestige and the personal dynamism of this “Lion of the Senate”, if anything made his U-turn on
abortion (yes, he was pro-life in his younger days) an even more scandalous counter-witness: a sign of conflict, not union, with that Church to which he professed loyalty.
Here are two comments I have just lifted off a Catholic blog:
1. “There’s this big, ‘What if?'” said Catholic author Michael Sean Winters. “If Ted Kennedy had stuck to his pro-life position, would both the (Democratic) party and the country have embraced the abortion on demand policies that we have now? I don’t think so.”
2. “Russell Shaw, former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that when Kennedy defied the church on issues such as abortion and later, gay marriage, he reinforced a corrosive belief among Catholics that they can simply ignore teachings they don’t agree with.”
Public Scandal Is Grave Matter
I myself remember several years ago a conversation with a young woman who had been brought up Catholic but had recently been ‘born again’ as an Evangelical Protestant. One of the arguments she threw at me was, “Even your Church leaders don’t really believe what Catholics are supposed to believe. Why don’t they excommunicate Ted Kennedy? He’s blatantly, 100% pro-choice! Yet they do nothing!”
What could I say to her? And what can I say now, after today’s public scandal? That young lady’s complaint was simply that this man remained a Catholic in good standing. I find I must now complain to you of something worse. Before the whole world this morning, my fellow Catholic clerics in Boston did not just accord him the “good standing” of a normal, flawed Catholic whose soul we can hope is in Purgatory. Rather, clad in triumphant white vestments instead of penitential violet (never mind the traditional black!), they have placed him on a pedestal, granting him an unofficial ‘instant canonization’!
Scripture Warns Us
The Church’s teaching is already abundantly clear that all this is very wrong. So perhaps we can legitimately discern the hand of God’s Providence, which rules all things, in a ‘coincidence’ that suggests a manifestation of God’s grave displeasure at this kind of mockery – injustice masquerading as “pastoral charity”. In our liturgy, Sunday has begun as I write at the hour of Vespers on Saturday. But the earlier part of this day, August 29, including the time of the Kennedy funeral, was observed by Catholics round the world as the Feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. In normal Masses celebrated today, the biblical account of his martyrdom was read (Mark 6: 17-29.) The parallels are striking: (a) We see two powerful civil authorities; (b) both of them flip-flop in a morally bad direction (Herod originally respected and defended John, and Kennedy originally respected and defended the unborn; (c) both of them abuse their
power by authorizing the shedding of innocent blood.
As if that were not enough, the longest Scripture reading in today’s liturgy also grabs our attention. It is prescribed not for the Feast of John the Baptist, but independently, for the Saturday of Week 21, in the ‘Office of Readings’, This is a part of the daily ‘Liturgy of the Hours’ which is required spiritual reading for us Roman Rite clerics. And today’s reading just happens to be Jeremiah 7: 1-20, in which the prophet vigorously denounces – guess what? – the hypocrisy of Israel’s religious leaders who proudly identify with the temple and the rites they celebrate within it, while at the same time they are living unrighteously (including “shedding innocent blood”, v. 6) and even “pouring out libations to strange gods” (v. 18). God therefore warns, “my anger and my wrath will pour out upon this
place” (v. 20). Orthodox Catholics will surely ask whether God can be any less angered now by those clerics who today carried out temple rites giving undeserved honor to a legislator who for decade after decade poured out the ‘libations’ of his eloquence, influence and Senate votes in the service the ‘false gods’ of Planned Parenthood and NARAL -which regularly rewarded him
with 100% ratings for his ‘pro-choice’ record.
Enough. If, in your charity, you pray for God to be merciful to the soul of Edward Moore Kennedy, please pray for all of us Catholic priests as well – and be cognizant of the fact that some of us are profoundly indignant at what we saw our brethren doing today.
Father Brian Harrison, O.S.
Oblates of Wisdom Study Center,
St. Louis, Missouri