Several weeks before his death from cancer on August 26, Senator Ted Kennedy sent a touching letter to Pope Benedict XVI imploring the Pope to pray for him as he entered his final days. The letter, which was personally delivered to the Pope by President Obama and read by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick during the burial ceremonies for Sen. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery, revealed much about Kennedy’s religious faith and the ways by which he sought to atone for his various sins of omission and commission.
The letter read in part:
Most Holy Father
I am writing with deep humility to ask that you pray for me as my own health declines.
I was diagnosed with brain cancer more than a year ago and although I continue treatment, the disease is taking its toll on me. I am 77 years old and preparing for the next passage of life. I have been blessed to be part of a wonderful family and both of my parents, particularly my mother, kept our Catholic faith at the center of our lives. That gift of faith has sustained and nurtured and provides solace to me in the darkest hours. I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith I have tried to right my path.
I want you to know Your Holiness that in my nearly 50 years of elective office I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I have worked to welcome the immigrant, to fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education. I have opposed the death penalty and fought to end war.
Those are the issues that have motivated me and have been the focus of my work as a United States senator. I also want you to know that even though I am ill, I am committed to do everything I can to achieve access to health care for everyone in my country. This has been the political cause of my life.
Your Holiness, and though I have fallen short through human failings, I have never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings of my faith. I continue to pray for God's blessings on you and on our church and would be most thankful for your prayers for me.
The Vatican’s response, which was delivered to Sen. Kennedy before his death and also read by Cardinal McCarrick at the graveside service, contained a blessing from his Holiness and a prayer “that in the days ahead you may be sustained in faith and hope and granted the precious grace of joyful surrender to the will of God, our merciful Father.”
Sen. Kennedy’s letter came as a surprise to many of his supporters because it was widely thought that, as a secular liberal and ardent supporter of homosexual marriage and abortion rights, he would have had little time for the rituals and doctrines of such a conservative institution as the Catholic Church. Such, however, was not the case. By all accounts of family and close friends, Sen. Kennedy was a sincere and observant member of the Church, even though his letter conspicuously failed to mention those sensitive issues over which he departed from Church teachings.
What is most interesting about the letter, however, is its concise expression of the view that personal salvation can be achieved through liberal politics. Christians are enjoined to serve the poor and to atone for sins through sacrificial acts of charity and kindness. These have traditionally been understood as injunctions upon the individual person, but Sen. Kennedy gives them a political or legislative interpretation. He served the poor and sought penance for sins by deploying his political skills and influence to craft legislation “to open the doors of economic opportunity” and to “expand access to health care and education,” at the same time fighting against the death penalty and trying to end war. Sen. Kennedy won fame and prominence for these dedicated efforts on behalf of liberal programs and causes, and in the days after his death nearly everyone agreed that in doing so he had won redemption for past acts of carelessness and irresponsibility.
The silence in Sen. Kennedy’s letter on gay marriage and abortion is particularly telling because it is here where liberal doctrine most clearly diverges from Catholic teaching. Senator Kennedy pretends, and perhaps succeeded in convincing himself, that such a divergence does not exist. One might say, however, that these issues of personal choice get very close to the heart and soul of modern liberalism, and also to the heart and soul of traditional religious teachings – so much so that they would be difficult for any thoughtful person to ignore or to set aside. Where these doctrines were in conflict, Sen. Kennedy went in the direction of liberalism and, indeed, few would have considered him a liberal hero had he not done so, notwithstanding his legislative efforts on behalf of the poor, the sick, and the disabled. Some went so far as to say that his finest hour occurred when he led the charge to keep Judge Robert Bork off the Supreme Court, which he succeeded in doing by highlighting Bork’s reservations about the Court’s abortion doctrine.
If Sen. Kennedy was a champion of the Catholic Church, what then does this say about Judge Bork, or any of us, Catholic or not, who doubt that federal intervention is the best way to expand opportunity or access to health care and education, or who are convinced that low taxes and limited government provide the surest means of preserving liberty while promoting prosperity for all? Sen. Kennedy’s point of view would seem to leave such people outside the circle of salvation or at the very least with a most difficult path into the promised land.
The point here is not to attack Sen. Kennedy’s liberal politics, or to attack liberalism at all, but to question the presumed fluidity between liberal doctrine and the demands of religious faith – a question that is equally pertinent with regard to other secular doctrines, including conservatism or socialism. It is especially striking that Sen. Kennedy’s letter to the Pope provoked so little in the way of such questioning. It was taken for granted that he had achieved redemption by his skillful advocacy of liberal causes.
The Catholic Church appears to be dying across Western Europe and North America, judging by various indicators such as the numbers of children in Catholic schools, the rapid decline in vocations, and the declining numbers of educated people who accept the teachings of the Church. What is true of the Catholic Church may be true also of Christianity in general, at least among the educated classes in these regions of the world, as politics replaces religion and the state replaces churches as primary foci of personal interest and concern. As such a process unfolds, it makes sense to think that the energies and impulses formerly associated with religion are gradually being absorbed – crudely and imperfectly -- into secular doctrines. At one level, this is a direction in which Sen. Kennedy’s letter seems to lead.
It is often said that secular doctrines like Marxism or nationalism are “substitutes” for religion, but that such a charge could never be made against liberalism because the architects of liberal governments saw religion and politics as separate domains that imposed different but not inconsistent requirements upon the individual citizen (with the caveat, as some wrote, that loyalty to the Roman Pope rendered one incapable of free citizenship). Nevertheless, the central idea was that liberty can be achieved through politics and salvation through religion, but the two should never be confused or intertwined lest we ask too much of politics and too little of religion.
By identifying his religion so closely with his political program, Sen. Kennedy’s letter reminds us how difficult it can be to maintain such distinctions even in a secular age -- and also that conservative Christians are far from the only ones who may be charged with mixing religion and politics.