Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was a man of contradictions and controversy in life and in death. Born into wealth, he lived a life of public service. He dedicated himself to the causes of the poor, the working class, the outcast and underprivileged, yet he was blind to the right to life of the unborn.
He came from what may be the best-known Catholic family in the country, yet his personal life was flawed for all to see.
As happens with the death of any galvanizing public figure, his death at age 77 of a brain tumor has provoked an outpouring of retrospectives and emotion. Those who esteem the "Lion of the Senate" praise his public service and his dedication to those with little voice in the political process. Indeed, it is hard not to listen to his legislative accomplishments and be impressed by how Catholic social teaching influenced much of his advocacy and his rhetoric.
In addition, he has won much praise from Republicans as well as Democrats for his willingness to "cross the aisle" and work with political opponents to get legislation passed. He saw half a loaf as better than none on many issues, and he was genuinely esteemed as a colleague. The current contentious atmosphere that polarizes the political process is the backdrop to many of these tributes. Political observers see his passing as one more sign that political compromise and collaboration is ever harder to achieve.
All of which is a bitter backdrop to how Catholics can view Kennedy's accomplishments. For many Catholics, he could have been the true lion of life. His public profile and his obvious leadership gifts combined with his social sensibilities could have made him the most eloquent of champions for the unborn. He could have single-handedly made the connection between the Church's social teachings and its teachings regarding the most defenseless citizens of all. Kennedy was in the position to bring both right and left together in a unique way, by speaking out on one of the most divisive social issues of the day: abortion.
That opportunity was lost.
Compounding this tragedy, he set an example for a generation and more of Catholic politicians to be "personally opposed, but" or to simply disregard the Church's teaching in this one pivotal area. To this day, the public counter-witness to the teaching and leadership of the Church by Catholic political leaders is one of our most distressing scandals.
Kennedy was a living exponent of the classic early American Catholic yearning for integration with secular society, which, in days of rampant anti-Catholicism, muted any hint of sectarianism in an effort to fit in.
So we offer prayers for his soul, as we do for all who have died. Only God can judge all that a man has done and all that he has not done, and we all will be subject to that same judgment.
Yet it is important now that we acknowledge that the mission was incomplete, the message only half stated regarding what Kennedy did and what he could have done.
Church leaders lost more than a generation of Catholic leaders in the abortion battle. It is important that another generation not be lost. The full Catholic social message is an agenda that must be heard anew from Catholic politicians, an agenda that extends from conception to natural death, and includes all those most in need of assistance and empowerment.