Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A single episode 40 years ago?

Steve Shiffrin needs to re-read what I wrote.  He accuses me of "catapulting" my disagreements with Ted Kennedy over abortion and stem cell research into a claim that Kennedy did not impose his religion on himself.  He then declares me to be guilty of a "cheap exaggeration."  But if Steve goes back to what I wrote he will find that my discussion of Kennedy's views about abortion and embryo-destructive research was entirely in the context of explaining why I disagree with Steve about whether Kennedy should be regarded as a champion of social justice.  (I expressly noted that, since Steve and I disagree on some important points as to what constitutes social justice, I can entirely understand why he thinks that Kennedy deserves to be so regarded.)  Of course, I could have marshaled what I regard as Kennedy's grave injustices against the unborn as a failure of (among other things) fidelity to his Catholic faith, but that would have begged the question against Steve and others who do not share my view that advocacy of legal abortion and its funding and embryo-destructive research is a grave injustice.  So I kept the focus on patterns of conduct by Joseph, John, and Edward Kennedy that practically everyone would agree cannot be squared with Catholic faith.

Ted Kennedy's conduct at Chappaquiddick was, as Steve himself says, and as I'm sure all Catholics and other men and women of good sense would agree, reprehensible.  But, as my article with Professor Quinn makes clear, his bad behavior in the matter was not confined to what happened on the evening of the accident and on the morning that followed. Nor, as the historical record shows, did his immoral conduct (in which I personally would include the calumniation of Robert Bork, though perhaps Steve will disagree about that) begin or end with Chappaquiddick.  Steve says, "to telescope a man's life into a sinful episode 40 years ago, and to portray it as the way Kennedy lived his life as a Catholic is indefensible,"  Happily for purposes of resolving the questions in this debate (though quite unhappily in every other way), there is plenty of evidence in the record to show that Kennedy's misconduct was frequent and often scandalous (quite literally so, especially for his sons and nephews---people who are familiar with Kennedy's own testimony in the William Kennedy Smith rape trial will know all about that).  The details are available in amply documented published accounts.  If, to sustain his accusation that what I've said about Ted Kennedy is "indefensible," Steve wants to claim that there is no evidence beyond "a sinful episode 40 years ago" for Kennedy's blatant disregard for Catholic moral principles, I would urge him to have a look at even so sympathetic a review of Kennedy's life as Adam Clymer's recent Edward M. Kennedy:  A Biography.  Clymer, the New York Times writer once unflatteringly characterized by George W. Bush when the then newly elected President didn't realize the microphone was still on, admires Kennedy and likes his politics, giving him high marks for his career in the Senate.  But even this work dispels what might be called the "single episode 40 years ago" thesis. (Needless to say, less sympathetic writers leave the thesis utterly in tatters.)

If I'm right about the way Catholics like Joseph, John, and Ted Kennedy exploited their Catholic religious identity politically while disregarding key elements of it in their personal lives (refusing, as Professor Arkes put it, to impose their religion even on themselves), and if I am also correct in saying that at least some Catholics (including perhaps some Catholic leaders) remained silent, and even played along with it in the hope of benefiting the Catholic faith, are there lessons we should draw from it?  Does Catholic legal and political theory have anything useful to contribute to understanding the relationship between personal character, religious authenticity and integrity, and statesmanship?  No one would say that personal recititude and integrity are sufficient for sound statesmanship.  (A virtuous individual may govern imprudently and even foolishly.)  But are they necessary?  If less than strictly necessary, are they more than a little desirable?  Can it ever be "good for the Church" for a Catholic political figure to secure an unjustified reputation for fidelity to its teachings in the way he leads his life?  Is it ever "better for the faith" that a Catholic leader with an unjustified reputation for religious fidelity is able to hang on to that reputation and not be exposed?

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