Boston, the Kennedys and the dignity of life

ROME (Zenit) -- My August visit to the United States this year was bracketed by the deaths of Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Senator Edward Kennedy. For a Bostonian like myself, these two events, representing the end of the extraordinary Kennedy generation that propelled Boston into the political A-list, closed the curtain on an era.

The funerals of the two Kennedys inevitably thrust Catholic culture into the front and center of media interest. Richard Dawkins, crusader for the removal of religion from the public square, must have pulled his hair out watching Cardinal Seán O’Malley in full regalia incensing the casket of Senator Kennedy on every major TV station.

For Boston Catholics, these images had even greater meaning.

From Catholic ghetto to Washington center stage

Boston was established upon granite columns of anti-Catholicism. From the time of its Puritan founders, the city maintained a heavy majority population of Protestants for three centuries until the Irish arrived -- unwelcomed and unwanted -- in the mid 19th century.

Seventeenth-century Puritan statutes banished all priests from the territory, and proscribed the penalty of death should they return (in 1690 this was mitigated to life imprisonment). Catholics were barred from all public worship until 1780. Each November 5th, on Guy Fawkes Day, Bostonians celebrated “Pope Day” by burning the pope in effigy, holding processions featuring the Roman Pontiff and the devil walking hand in hand and launching pogrom-type vandalizing of Catholic homes and businesses.

In 1834, rioters burned down an Ursuline convent in North Boston and by 1840 a virulently anti-Catholic political party, the “Know Nothings,” was formed in reaction to Catholic immigration to the United States. The Know Nothing party swept Massachusetts elections in 1854, winning both governorship and legislature.

Puritan laws had forbidden Catholics from holding any kind of political office and Boston practice portrayed Catholics as mindless automata in the service of the foreign pope.

All of that changed in a big way in 1960. The election of John F. Kennedy, a Bostonian no less, as president of the United States offered Boston a catharsis similar to that of the election of Barack Obama. The stigma of anti-Catholic bigotry could at last be cleansed.

The Kennedy compromise

The price for this Catholic family seizing the brass ring was very high and American Catholics have been paying interest ever since. John F. Kennedy declared in a televised 1960 interview, “I do not speak for my Church on public matters -- and the Church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as president -- on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject -- I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.”

This infamous Catholic caveat allowed JFK to be elected president, but formed the precedent for every Catholic pro-abortion politician’s argument, “I’m personally opposed but ...”

Edward Kennedy, JFK’s littlest brother, lived to see the disastrous road the Kennedy compromise brought about. In 1971, Senator Kennedy wrote the following words: “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.”

He also said, “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. 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.”

In a moral tragedy rivaling the horrendous assassination of his brothers, Ted Kennedy bowed to political pressure and became a strong supporter of abortion. In the past week, no Kennedy mourner has been louder than NARAL, the foremost abortion advocacy group in the United States, who gave him a coveted 100 percent approval rating.

Rescue and reconciliation

On the other hand, Eunice Shriver, the fifth Kennedy child, found a use for the magic name of Kennedy, which would not be rooted in cover-ups and compromise. Eunice set about rescuing the family name and restoring its luster of hope and promise.

As of the 1950s she directed her interest to the mentally disabled and ultimately founded the Special Olympics. She championed the right to life, constantly contesting pro-abortion groups for quoting her presidential brother out of context and making him seem favorable to abortion. As a member of the Democratic party, she maintained the unpopular position of a pro-life Democrat.

During a ceremony in her honor held at the JFK library in Boston on Nov. 16, 2007, Eunice attributed all that had been good in her brother’s presidency, all that had truly helped the weak and voiceless, to her sister Rosemary, saying that “more than any one single individual, Rosemary made the difference.”

Rosemary Kennedy, who died at the age of 86 on Jan. 7, 2005, was given a lobotomy at the age of 23 and was left mentally incapacitated. Eunice began her work with mentally disabled people because of the tragedy of her sister Rosemary and founded the Special Olympics in her honor. President Kennedy signed into law the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) inspired by his sister.

The cascade of images from Boston and Hyannisport this August underscored the distinct personalities and legacies of the two Kennedy siblings.

Among hundreds of mourners who came to bid farewell to Eunice Shriver, many were Special Olympians paying tribute to Eunice with accounts of how her initiatives changed countless individual lives.

Even the touching image that made its way around the world of Carolina Shriver tenderly stroking the cheek of her bereaved grandfather, underscored the legacy of love and caring that Eunice left behind.

The far more televised event of Ted Kennedy’s funeral saw citizens of Massachusetts lining the streets mourning the end of the era when Boston was a political nerve center. Television coverage featured politicians jockeying for points on health care issues or Kennedy’s senatorial successor. Reminiscent of ancient Roman send-offs of the Julio-Claudian emperors, some pushed for deification of the departed while others clamored for “condamnatio memoriae,” condemning their memories.

Back in July, Ted Kennedy sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI, delivered by none other than President Obama. It now appears that the pope wrote back to the dying senator and that a priest was at his bedside as he died. In his true final act, Ted Kennedy didn’t promote health care reform, but reconciled with Christ and his Church, providing all onlookers with a reminder that the Church preaches mercy and forgiveness and waits with open arms for the return of all of her children.

Although in life Eunice often needed the powerful support of her famous brothers to carry out her many projects to protect life, now she and her beloved Rosemary are no doubt well placed to intercede for them in heaven.

This may be the most powerful -- and certainly the most important -- bond among these celebrated siblings.

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program.