The death of Edward Kennedy and the end of an era

The public accomplishments of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who died on August 25, will be discussed and debated for years, and perhaps decades. He was the only one of the Kennedy brothers who took the United States Senate seriously, and if one is hard put to name specific pieces of major legislation on which his imprint was writ large, he was nonetheless a “Senate man” in a way that neither Jack nor Bobby ever was -- and thus a popular figure in insider Washington. As for his shift from critic of Roe v. Wade to pro-choice paladin, that has been commented on sufficiently by others. Let me only add to the public record that the late Henry Hyde, a pro-lifer to the core, told me that he had once said to Kennedy, “Ted, if you’d take leadership of our movement, we’d sweep the country.” Given the confusions of our moral culture and our law, that might have been too optimistic. But we’ll never know, as Kennedy took a different path, and among other things, ended up committing calumny against Robert Bork.

Ted Kennedy’s death does, however, mark the end of an era, and in several ways.

It marks -- or should mark -- the end of an era in which Catholics in the United States identity “concern for the poor” with big-government-funded and big-government-managed welfare programs. That the well-intentioned initiatives of the Great Society, which Ted Kennedy supported, ended up destroying urban neighborhoods and families while creating massive welfare dependency was acknowledged by many, including liberals, during the welfare reform debates of the mid-1990s -- but not by the senior senator from Massachusetts, who was, to put it gently, nowhere near the forefront of the reform movement.

John Paul II’s critique of welfare dependency in the 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, and the late Pope’s proposal that true care for the poor means the empowerment of poor people through their incorporation into networks of productivity and exchange, never made much of a dent on Ted Kennedy, who was not very helpful in helping poor children to obtain vouchers that allowed them to attend Catholic schools that worked rather than public schools that didn’t. In the aftermath of Kennedy’s death, many of those critical of the late senator’s record on the life issues nevertheless praised him as an advocate for the poor. Surely, though, it’s past time to consider just what advocacy for the poor means, in a Catholic context. No one does the urban poor a favor by supporting programs that maintain the welfare plantation.

Ted Kennedy’s death also marks the symbolic end of an era of tribal Irish Catholicism in America, although perhaps not in the way some eulogists imagined. Kennedy was said by one commentator to have been the pivotal figure in transforming rote Catholic obedience to hierarchical authority into critical Catholic discernment of one’s moral obligations, especially in terms of contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. It’s arguably much more faithful to the truth of that transformation, however, to describe it as one from a culturally-transmitted Catholicism, in which the teaching authority of the Church was given the benefit of the doubt, to a do-it-yourself Catholicism in which claims of conscience, however ill-formed, trump all. Ted Kennedy was no theologian, but the role played by dissident theologians like Robert Drinan and Charles Curran in Kennedy’s becoming the public embodiment of the latter Catholic style will bear close examination by historians of theology in late-20th century America.

Finally, the death of Senator Kennedy ought to end the infatuation of many American Catholics (and others) with the Kennedy family. Camelot’s last living major figure has died. The successor generation is simply not of the same heft as Jack, Bobby, and Ted. From Jack Kennedy’s election to the House of Representatives in 1946 until Ted Kennedy’s death in 2009 was a 63 year run -- 13 years longer than that of the Virginia dynasty among the founders (figured from Washington’s taking command of the Continental Army in 1775 to Monroe’s leaving the presidency in 1825). It’s over. We would do the next generation of Kennedys a favor by acknowledging that.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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