Which Comes First, the Church or the Party?

Well, I’ve read and talked more than I ever cared to about Ted Kennedy recently, may he rest in peace. And Darwin has already ably responded to this defense of the late Senator Kennedy from Michael Sean Winters. But something about Mr. Winters response has been ringing in my ears, and I think it’s because it summarizes in a few sentences what I perceive to be the tragedy of Catholic Democrats in the U.S.: they could have taken a stand for unborn life but were unwilling. As a result, faithful Catholics have either been driven into the Republican Party, become independents, or become disconcertingly comfortable with the status quo on abortion. Currently I think both the first and last options are incompatible with Catholic thought – at least without substantial departure from party orthodoxies. Where familiarity (with both parties) should have breed contempt, it has instead yielded unconscionable familiarity and acceptance. And Mr. Winters’ post provides a clear illustration of this reality:

To dismiss his [Senator Kennedy’s] career because of his stance on abortion is to be ignorant of the complicated way the issue of abortion manifested itself in the early 1970s: I think Kennedy got it wrong but I do not find it difficult to understand why and how he got it wrong.

Perhaps I am among those ignorant of the complications Mr. Winters describes, but it appears to me that one can understand easily enough the reasons for Senator Kennedy’s abrupt reversal on abortion. The first is that he was a politician, and when politicians act in ways that are in their political self-interest, it is reasonable to assume that political self-interest entered into their decision-making process. A second is that Senator Kennedy received bad advice from numerous Catholic clergy; it is not clear to what extent the receipt of bad advice was a cause or an effect of his decision to reverse his position on abortion, but let’s assume it was a cause for the sake of charity.

I agree with Mr. Winters that Senator Kennedy’s switch, given this background, was perfectly understandable (i.e. there were rational reasons for it). But I fail to see how this means that only ‘ignorance’ could lead someone to criticize Senator Kennedy. Political self-interest is hardly a moral disinfectant; and the Church’s position, as Senator Kennedy was undoubtedly aware, was similarly clear, regardless of the assurances of dissenting theologians. The real question here is why Mr. Winters thinks that ignorance (rather than awareness) accounts for the criticism Senator Kennedy received for his support for abortion for nearly forty years. And the only answer I can come up with is that Mr. Winters is so accustomed to viewing things from the perspective of a Democratic partisan that he is unable to imagine a Catholic legitimately, rather than simply as a Republican partisan, being appalled by Senator Kennedy’s record on abortion. This becomes even more apparent in his next comment:

If the pro-life leaders would stop ranting for a second and study that history they might become more effective at advancing their cause.

Notice, Mr. Winters, has already said he thinks Senator Kennedy was wrong about abortion. But he then finds it necessary to uncharitably caricature those he agrees with as ‘ranting’ in order to defend Senator Kennedy’s legacy. And again, he suggests that remedying their (alleged) ignorance would somehow help the pro-life movement, and mitigate the criticisms of Senator Kennedy’s record on abortion. This is all very puzzling. Mr. Winters has asserted that 1) Senator Kennedy was wrong; 2) That those who criticize Senator Kennedy for being wrong are wrong to do so; and 3) That they would not criticize Senator Kennedy if they were better informed about why Senator Kennedy was wrong, but that exculpatory reason (known to Mr. Winters) is not shared with the reader. It seems clear that something else is going on here, and I think Mr. Winters’ conclusion makes clear what it is:

Besides, Ted Kennedy got many more things right than he got wrong.

Translation: Ted Kennedy was a Democrat. And Democrats, in Mr. Winters judgment, are more right than wrong. Therefore, to criticize them when they are wrong, is to invite dismissive remarks about ignorance and ‘ranting’ pro-life leaders.

Now, one should be careful not to draw too many conclusions from one blog post. I do not mean to impugn Mr. Winters’ faith, which, for all I know, is far more advanced than my own. Nevertheless, I think this passage highlights one of the chief problems with the Catholic Church in the United States: in the political realm, we sometimes present the Gospel as partisans of a particular party first, and Catholics second. It begins innocently enough: we decide one party is more in line with the Church’s vision of the human person. Then we begin to defend the party on those grounds, and on some other issues where there is room for prudential judgment. And then, as we support the party for a longer period of time – and it captures more of our sympathies – occasionally we find ourselves defending our favorite politicians and parties against the Church’s position. At this point, I think we need to take a step back. It is hard to imagine Mr. Winters describing Pope John Paul II or Benedict XVI as ‘ranting’ when they articulate the moral necessity of legal protection for the unborn. And yet he goes out of his way to caricature his fellow pro-lifers in order to defend the record of a particularly problematic Catholic politician. The same thing happens on the right, of course, on issues ranging from immigration to torture to health care.

The Church’s vision of the human person and the relation of the individual to the common good does not line up neatly with one party or the other in the contemporary United States. And, while this is occasionally frustrating, I think on the whole this is a healthy thing. The Gospel is not meant to tell us what we already know; it is meant to challenge us, to bring us out of our comfortable complacency and party orthodoxies. The great tragedy of the late Senator Kennedy’s legacy was that he failed to transcend the limitations of his party. Mr. Winters is right to observe that this is human, but he is wrong to dismiss those who criticize it as ignorant.

5 Responses to Which Comes First, the Church or the Party?

  1. Cminor says:

    Well said. I think your argument is strengthened by the fact that for over thirty years, Sen. Kennedy had ample opportunity to reevaluate his position in the light of advances in prenatal medicine. He had the opportunity to take firm stances against the pro-abortion absolutists’ increasingly irrational demands. He appears to have done very little in this way, though I will give him credit for his efforts on behalf of handicapped children.

    The tendency to appoint oneself theologian-in-chief is, sadly, far too common. Not only did Kennedy succumb to this failing, he seems at a critical decision point to have surrounded himself with members of the clergy suffering from the same disorder.

  2. G-Veg says:

    I appreciate the analysis but I wonder if we are creating an unjustified distinction in favor of Sen. Kennedy’s interpretation of social justice.

    It was, for me, far more than his stance on abortion that offended me. Sen. Kennedy evoked a viscoral reaction whenever I saw or heard him. The root cause was that the “social justice” that he spoke so eloquently for was coupled with an hypocracy and a complete disregard for the effects of social liberalism, as opposed to social justice, on American society in general and American Catholicism in particular.

    As to the hypocracy, it was far more than his lack of remorse about leaving someone to die, though I admit that his lifelong denial of substantive responsibility colors my perception of the rest. Plainly stated, he remained an unrepentant, vice-ridden person his whole public life and saw no responsibility to act as an example to others. Born into a life of privelege, power, and wealth, he made no continuous efforts to bolster charitable giving of time or talents. He could have championed causes of every stripe that involved individual charity and concern. Instead, he championed only government intervention. In my opinion, no Catholic can take credit for what the state compels him to do, however just or right, so this utter failure to call others to charity or to engage in its himself stacks strongly against him. The hypocracy comes from his unceasing lectures to others for their individualism and failure to support Statism.

    Finally, in a related vein, he advocated far more than abortion – even though abortion would be enough to show him as having excommunicated himself in my book. He drew heavily from Catholic roots and used that tie-in to preserve political power and to use it in advancing others who directly opposed Catholic values. To advance those who furthered gay marriage, abortion on demand, no-fault divorce, euthenasia, sex-ed sponsored by Planned Parenthood, and other causes directly opposed to our beliefs surely invalidates his claim to being a Catholic in other than name only.

    At the end of my analysis, I must conclude that his Catholicism was merely a cloak to hide grave evil. Whether he saw it that way or not is between him and God. However, that he was little more than a well-hidden cancer is not, to my mind, in doubt.

  3. Matt McDonald says:


    I agree with your assesment of Kennedy’s viewpoint on social liberalism, and I agree that it is in error. I think we need to be cautious with other than black and white issues such as abortion and euthanasia. What I’m saying is, no matter how much I believe modern liberalism is completely opposed to the Church, the Church has not spoken such and so I merely “speculate”.

  4. G-Veg says:

    The problem with not being more explicit about what we, as Christians, oppose is that the other voices advocating for a better way of living, like the Mennonites, Hassid, and LDS, NEED all the support they can get.

    For example, school has started this week and the alley beside my house is a major thoroughfare for kids going to our public high school. Frankly, many of the girls are dressed like tramps and the boys’ behavior is atrocious: rude, unseemly, and unkind. We should be calling such behavior what it is – unChristian.

    I have been reading a lot about the early Church and am struck by the ability of so few to affect so many simply by living well and stating the truth loudly. It is more than their evangelization – though the power of seeking out the lost and inviting them to find community is a resounding lesson worth applying to a world so lost in the false claims of modernity – it is also the social norms that so impressed the heathen communities where they were established: standing apart from the rituals and sinfulness of the world around them.

    How can we call ourselves Catholic while sending our daughters out for Halloween dressed sexily? How can we call ourselves Christian while allowing our sons to taunt and abuse the weakest among them?

    More to the point of the post above, how can we allow public figures to call themselves Catholic and derive power from their warped association with the faith without calling them on it when they act in a distinctly un-Catholic way?

    Yes, Kennedy and Pelosi, among others, have probably excommunicated themselves and there is no need for the Church to take such formal actions. However, their crimes were and are well known and it creates confusion and scandal for our Bishops to ignore it in them and speak eloquently to the rest of us.

    By making oneself a public figure, you invite comment on your life and forgo the right to protest that your Christian identity is between you and God alone.

    “To those to whom more is given…”

  5. MacGregor says:

    Finally! This is the first article that I believe was well, and thoughtfully written! I admit I am new to The American Catholic, so I haven’t seen many articles – I have mostly seen rants and blind partisanship in many of the posts – but this one actually gets to some important issues and even though I disagree with some of the opinions, this one at least gives a foundation for discussion that I think can be useful.

%d bloggers like this: