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

Steve Shiffrin, "Cheap Humor," and the Kennedys

I disagree with Steve Shiffrin's claim that Hadley Arkes's remark amounts to "cheap humor."  On the contrary, it is humor that makes a telling and important point.  Joseph P. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy (until public revelations of his conduct made it no longer possible) each depicted himself, or permitted his political machinery to depict him, as a man who was loyal in belief and practice to Catholic teaching.  They used their professed Catholicism to paint a false picture of themselves for political purposes.  They sought to deceive the voting public, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, about the kind of men they were, and they exploited the image they created of themselves as dedicated Catholics who lived by the teachings of the Church.  I certainly join Steve in suggesting that readers have a look at Ted Kennedy's autobiography True Compass, but they should read it with the history of manipulation of this sort by the Kennedy family and its public relations machinery very much in mind.  Even in that book, in which he purports to accept responsibility for his widely known failings, Ted Kennedy does not come clean on his culpability for the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick.  For the facts, please see my article with the historian Demot Quinn here:  http://article.nationalreview.com/print/?q=YzMyNTgxMmExNzBiOTMzZWY2YjZmZTQ1MjZkZmQ2MDY=  I would be happy to hear from anyone who would like to contest on even a single point the accuracy of our account.  If readers agree that what we report is true, I would ask them to bear those facts in mind when they find Ted Kennedy in True Compass saying, "I have fallen short in my life, but my faith has always brought me home."

Steve and I have some important differences, I suspect, on what constitutes social justice, though I'm sure we have a good deal of agreement, too.  On the points of difference, his beliefs no doubt are generally in line with those that Ted Kennedy stood for.  Since I'm on the other side, I do not share what I take to be Steve's view that Kennedy was a champion of social justice, though I can see why he does.  Kennedy's determined efforts to keep abortion legal and largely unrestricted, to pay for it with public funds, and to make it more widely available and easily accessible were, in my view, grave violations of justice and human rights.  Ditto for his work to promote and publicly fund biomedical research in which nascent human beings are deliberately destroyed and dissected in the embryonic stage of development to produce pluripotent stem cells.  There were, to be sure, some human rights issues, especially in the international field, on which Kennedy got it right in my view, and I would not withhold praise for him for those.  I cannot, however, join Steve (if I've understood him correctly) in characterizing Kennedy as someone whose overall record is to be praised from a social justice perspective.

On Joseph P. Kennedy's profound contempt in practice for teachings of the faith he purported to hold dear, see Ronald Kessler, The Sins of the Father: Joseph P. Kennedy and the Dynasty He Founded.  Readers who do not know much about the elder Kennedy will likely be shocked not only by his unremitting philandering, but also by his cruelty, dishonesty, personal viciousness, and anti-semitism.  On JFK's conduct, one need not turn to authors who are especially critical of him.  All one needs to know to assess the validity of Arkes's pointed remark can be found in material contained in An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, by Kennedy supporter Robert Dallek. (If you are interested in reading what more critical biographers have to say, see A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy by the historian Thomas Reeves and The Dark Side of Camelot by journalist Seymour Hersh.)  Like his father, JFK was not merely a man who occasionally gave in to temptation but then repented, sought forgiveness, and tried to live uprightly.  He really did, as Arkes puts it, refuse to impose his religion on himself---or even to try.  (In fairness, there is nothing in JFK's record to match the cruelty or anti-semitism of his father.)

There were those, including some Catholics, and almost certainly some ecclesiastical leaders, who knew perfectly well that Joseph Kennedy and John Kennedy were publicly misrepresenting themselves as men who led lives in conformity with Catholic teaching.  Some of these people, thinking that John F. Kennedy's political success would redound to the benefit of Catholics and the Catholic faith in America, abetted the misrepresentations.  Most Catholics and others in those days did not know the truth, and many were very happy to believe that the charming, attractive, witty, and very publicly Catholic JFK was a devout member of the faith who, though a sinner like the rest of us, tried hard to live up to its teachings.  Some time back, I found in my father's study, a kind of relic of those days.  It is a pamphlet written by a Boston priest shortly after Kennedy's election as President providing details of Kennedy's intense piety, and lavishly praising his moral rectitude.  It presents JFK as a model husband, father, and Catholic whose exemplary spiritual and moral life should be emulated by Catholic men. I hope that the author was simply ignorant.  Perhaps he, like so many Catholics of his time, was merely misled by the propaganda machinery. I hope he was not the sort who believed that saying things that are patently untrue can be justified when done for the sake of promoting the Catholic faith.  That is always a devil's bargain.   

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