The burial of Senator Ted Kennedy was, for some Catholics, a source of scandal. But in his recent column, Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin explains why, despite the late senator's public and private misdeeds, the reaction of some Catholics to the senator's passing is sinful.
Bishop Morlino begins his weekly column in the Madison Catholic Herald by explaining that a recent period of rest allowed him to watch much of the televised coverage of Senator Kennedy's burial and reflect on the reaction to the senator's life.
Drawing on a growing awareness of his own mortality, the bishop said that he had acquired a better understanding of what Senator Kennedy must have gone through as he neared his last days.
In the legislative arena, Bishop Morlino said there can be “no doubt that Senator Kennedy’s accomplishments as the 'Lion of the Senate' were intended to help the most poor and downtrodden in our society.”
On the other hand, the bishop stated, there was also “a disconnect” in his life between his strong exercise of pro-life leadership in helping the poor and his “leadership against the pro-life cause relative to the abortion of our tiniest brothers and sisters, embryonic stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, and so on.”
This sort of moral equivocation presents Catholics in the U.S. with a challenge to “bridge that disconnect and pull that whole seamless garment of the defense of life together, rather than rending that garment in twain and choosing one, while almost, or actually, excluding the other. The social teaching of the Church and her pro-life stance surely are interwoven as a seamless garment,” Morlino said.
At one point, it appeared that Senator Kennedy sensed that the political stars were aligning in a way that would juxtapose the right to life of the unborn and care for the poor and disabled which would ultimately test his faith.
Senator Kennedy, Bishop Morlino recalled, convened a meeting of priests and high-level theologians a good number of years ago to address the issue of Catholic political leadership and their votes with regard to abortion.
“Obviously, the very convening of this meeting showed that he took his Catholicism seriously and did not consider himself to be an accomplished theologian,” the Wisconsin bishop commented.
“Sadly, that meeting simply became another occasion for the development by theologians of the 'two-conscience' approach to the faith for Catholic political leaders— that is the approach which says, 'privately I’m opposed to abortion, but in the public arena there are other conflicting responsibilities which allow me to vote in favor of legal abortion.'”
“No matter how many theologians get together, the two-conscience theory is irreparably flawed and wrong, and no one can make it otherwise,” Morlino stated.
“But if Senator Kennedy was given this advice and this approach, this 'catechesis' — false though it is — by prominent theologians, it could at least be said that there was some ground for confusion and ambiguity in his own practice about these matters. The priests and theologians who counseled Senator Kennedy are not free of blame for causing the confusion and the ambiguity through false catechesis,” wrote the bishop.
Recounting his letter to Pope Benedict and the regular presence of priests around him in his final weeks, Bishop Morlino said that “it would be more reasonable than not to believe that he had made a good confession.”
When it comes to the issue of Senator Kennedy being given a Catholic burial, Bishop Morlino noted that he was glad that it was celebrated in “a subdued fashion.” The proclamation of “God’s Mercy was powerful, the prayer for forgiveness of his past sins was clearly offered, and all of this in a subdued way because of his long-standing and public holding of pro-abortion and other stances which have been a scandal in the literal sense,” Morlino wrote.
However, the Bishop of Madison said that he is afraid that “for not a few Catholics, the funeral rites for Senator Kennedy were a source of scandal — that is, quite literally, led them into sin.”
Summarizing the reactions of some Catholics and pro-life supporters, Bishop Morlino repeated some of the questions he heard: “'how on earth could Teddy Kennedy be buried from the Church?' There have also been expressions from some, that 'whatever happens in Church, Senator Kennedy will now face justice, which will lead him inside the gates of Hell.'”
But it is “sinful to enjoy the thought that someone might be in Hell,” Bishop Morlino warned, noting that this belief is an ancient Christian truth.
“The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit worked powerfully through history so that Hell could be avoided by the proper exercise of human freedom, and to take delight in the perceived foiling of God’s plan is wrong,” he added.
Any reaction that finds joy in a person's possible damnation is wrong because the Church believes and has taught from the beginning that “Jesus died precisely so that sins might be forgiven. His body was broken and His blood was shed so that sins might be forgiven, so that there might be mercy,” Morlino explained.
“The death of Senator Kennedy,” the bishop observed, “has called forth at least an apparent rejection of mercy on the part of not a few Catholics. On the cross of Christ, God’s justice came into conflict with God’s mercy. God’s justice was fully satisfied, but mercy triumphed in the conflict, according to the teaching of Pope Benedict.”
“Without denying any misdeeds on the part of Senator Kennedy, the Church, seeking to reflect the face of Christ, proclaimed God’s mercy for the whole world to see in a subdued but unmistakable way. It was more than appropriate,” Bishop Morlino concluded.