Sargent Shriver: A model Catholic in public life

R. Sargent Shriver, who founded the Peace Corps under President Kennedy and headed the War on Poverty under President Johnson, died on Jan. 18 at the age of 95 in Bethesda, Maryland. Born into an old Maryland Catholic family (one of his ancestors signed the Maryland Constitution and Bill of Rights at Maryland's Constitutional Convention of 1776), as an altar boy he served Masses celebrated by James Cardinal Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore and friend and confidante of presidents. As a twelve-year old, he went to Albany to hear Alfred E. Smith accept the Democratic Party's nomination for president in 1928, the first Catholic to be nominated for president.

He went to Yale, graduating in 1938 as chairman of the Yale Daily News, and then to Yale Law School, graduating in 1941 before enlisting in the Navy on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Wounded at Guadalcanal, he was awarded the Purple Heart.

He was a devout Catholic, frequently attending daily Mass, and always carrying a well-worn rosary.

In the 1950s he ran Chicago's Merchandise Mart for Joseph P. Kennedy (which sounds like one of the world's most difficult jobs), and courted Eunice Kennedy, the boss's daughter, whom he married in 1953. And thus he became the brother-in-law of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who in 1960 was elected the nation's first and thus far only) Catholic President. By coincidence, Sarge's death occurred just two days before the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's Inauguration on Jan. 20, 1961.

While in Chicago, he was active in the Catholic Interracial Council of Chicago, seeking racial justice before it became chic. If his brother-in-law was famous for telling Americans to "Ask not, what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," Sargent Shriver would tell graduating students at Yale in 1994, "Break mirrors. Yes, indeed. Shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own."

His work in founding the Peace Corps and spearheading the War on Poverty with programs like Head Start exemplified his dedication to service to the most vulnerable. Unlike many Catholic politicians (among whom some Kennedys were prominent), he was pro-life and opposed to abortion. In 1992, he and his wife joined pro-life Governor Casey in signing a full-page ad in the New York Times protesting the Democratic Party's identification with abortion. Calling Roe v. Wade "the most momentous act of exclusion in our history," he said, "America does not need the abortion license. What America needs are policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers and their children, both before and after birth."

He headed the Special Olympics, founded by his wife Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died in 2009. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2003. His daughter Maria, married to California's ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, published a children's book the following year, What's Happening to Grandpa?, to explain the affliction to kids.

Cardinal Seán O'Malley summed up his life: "He changed the world for the better. His commitment to preserving and protecting human life at every stage of existence, especially for the unborn, and working to lift people out of poverty were exceptional gifts of love and humanity."

"We pray for the repose of Sargent's soul and we ask that God grant him eternal rest in His loving Kingdom," the Cardinal wrote. Amen to that.

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.