The Kennedy Funeral & the Faces of Scandal

There’s sure been a lot of chatter over the past week or so about the Ted Kennedy funeral, and Cardinal O’Malley’s participation in it. This is hardly surprising, given how divisive a character Kennedy was. Cardinal O’Malley, in what strikes me as a surprising move in several respects, has gone public with an explanation of his decision, in response to extensive criticism that undoubtedly ranged in impetus from befuddlement to anger. I appreciate his attempt at explaining himself – as I appreciate the difficulty of this whole problematic affair – but there are some elements of this episode I find deeply troubling.

I was among the many who were dismayed at certain aspects of the handling of the affair, though I didn’t feel it was appropriate to comment on at the time. Then there were  a couple thoughts in the Cardinal’s comments that struck me as diverting focus away from the real issue at hand, and my trouble with the whole matter was compounded when I read this article by Madison (Wisconsin) Bishop Robert C. Morlino. At that point, I’d had enough.

Both men went out of their way to praise Senator Kennedy for the good work that he had done in various areas over the years. Now, whether or not the state-centric, “give a hungry man someone else’s fish” social problem solving approach, endemic to contemporary progressive liberalism which Kennedy exemplified, is truly good work, Kennedy clearly believed it was (as do so many others, including, apparently, both of these bishops). I’ve been to enough funerals to know that it seems to serve a legitimate pastoral purpose toward the bereaved to lionize even the most insignificant of contributions of the deceased, so I can certainly understand the approach in that respect (even if it obscures the real point of the funeral Mass), but not without simultaneously realizing that this was an exceedingly public situation, with a scope of pastoral impact that was not only far broader than the vast majority of funerals, but also decidedly more complex.

One of the more eyebrow-raising comments in Bishop Morlino’s piece was his assertion that the funeral Mass was a source of scandal in that it led people into sinful expressions of un-charitableness toward Kennedy. Archbishop O’Malley also seemed to use the opportunity to take umbrage at the angry, though without his brother bishop’s sharp dramatic flair. These accusations may be true, but they are made at the expense of the recognition of the profound betrayal felt by many good people within the Church – including not only those who fell into vindictiveness, but also many more who held their tongues and prayed for humility – at the sight of Church leaders seeming to shrug their shoulders at the most important spiritual crisis facing our culture. Bishop Morlino’s assertion, in particular, seemed designed to undercut, by anticipation of argument, any valid expressions of criticism stemming from the more obvious interpretation of the scandal attached to this Mass, namely: the projection of the heretical idea that the culture of abortion is – or can be made – compatible with the sacramental life of the Church. It’s not as if the Church is not deeply embroiled in this very heresy on an on-going basis!

I’m not suggesting that the matter of whether or not Senator Kennedy should have been afforded a Catholic funeral is one for you or I to consider, for it is not only not our decision to make, but is dependent in large part upon that which we cannot possibly know – namely his relation to Christ and His Church at his death, a matter ultimately hidden in the interior forum of conscience. Besides, it hardly seems charitable to even consider denying a Catholic funeral to anyone who desired one. But there is an exterior forum as well, which the Church – the episcopacy in particular – has a duty to attend to, and if a latae sententiae excommunication is incurred by a woman procuring an abortion, her abortionist, and any others formally collaborating in the crime, it is awfully hard to see how a legislator who was an open and unapologetic  promoter of abortion “choice” would not also be guilty of formal cooperation when said “choice” was inevitably made. Senator Kennedy’s views and actions in defiance of the moral order – and the Church’s clear teaching – were so well-known as to be notorious. He was the poster child for pro-abortion Catholics.

So while it’s all well and fine for a bishop to presume reconciliation, it seems to me a great disservice to the many looking on, who see only the public record, to make no attempt to publically acknowledge that the crimes committed by Kennedy required repentance and forgiveness. That might be a delicate thing to try to do under the circumstances, but I’m hardly suggesting I think the funeral was a good idea to begin with. And frankly, it would seem to be a pastoral imperative to make it very clear that this rampant heresy of rationalized murder is a clear and present danger to the immortal souls of everyone in the Western world (and beyond). Charity may demand that we assume Ted Kennedy died in a state of grace, but whether he did or not, there is nothing anyone can do to change it now. In other words, the real pastoral issue (e.g. the saving of souls) has little to do with Ted, and much to do with those who have yet to face their own, certain, judgment. If participation in this abortion holocaust is a mortal sin, it is by no means “compassionate” to make it appear that it doesn’t really matter in the end. Who benefits from that, except the devil?

Bishop Morlino complained about a perceived lack of mercifulness coming from the critics within the Church, but the truth is that the notion of mercy was largely missing from the proceedings themselves. I think most of the critics would have been satisfied if the proceedings had reflected a communal plea for God’s mercy upon the soul of a brother sinner; indeed, it could have been a great teaching moment. Instead, we were treated to a polite evasion of the most crucial matters, a liturgical rite lamely disconnected from the spirit of the proceedings, and the public lionization of a notorious sinner within the context of the Mass (some have referred to it as a canonization, and with good reason – it was embarrassing listening to people speak of Kennedy as if he were already in heaven, expressions that were not only vacuous, but, coming during a funeral, violations of canon law).

But what bothers me the most, both in the subtler words of Cardinal O’Malley, and in the harsher words of Bishop Morlino, is the insinuation that those who hold and proclaim the sure and ancient teaching of the Church are responsible for a state of division within the Church – or at least of perpetuating it. It reminds me of the way people blame Pope Paul VI for dividing the Church at the end of the 1960s by publishing Humanae Vitae – as if the dissenters weren’t the ones responsible for the division!

I imagine the bishops are frustrated by the exposure of the rift, but let’s be very clear: there is visible division in the Church stemming from the liberal abortion license because some people support abortion rights in dissent from Church teaching, yet claim to be in Communion with the Church nonetheless. (Actually, the fact that any of the baptized assert abortion rights creates division in the Church, but that takes the matter to another level, beyond the scope of our consideration.) If people get angry at such injustice being done to the Church they love, perhaps it is with good reason, and perhaps they deserve to be treated with a bit more kindness than their shepherds have managed to muster here. God help us if we begin appeasing the demands for unfaithfulness to the truth, for the sake of avoiding uncomfortable conflict.

At the end of the day, though, the real issue seems to me to be the ability of the Church to fulfill her mission to proclaim the Gospel, where the question of her credibility is of paramount importance. The Church may be widely admired for her good works, but she is otherwise seen by many (including more than a few Christians) as just another political player on the world stage – and a clumsy one at that. Nothing in the handling of this matter provided evidence to the contrary, as far as I can see. By disregarding the great moral crisis that hung over the event like a storm cloud, the Church gave the impression that abortion is just another political issue, subject to the ebb and flow of circumstance and expediency. And that plays right into the hands of her enemies, eager to paint the Church’s outrageous claims to moral authority as fraudulent. That might be the most tragic scandal to emerge from this mess.