Nobody’s perfect: Remembering Ted Kennedy

By | August 26, 2009


U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., waves as he walks out of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston May 21, 2008. Kennedy, who died at his Cape Cod, Mass., home late Aug. 25, was a major figure in the Democratic Party who took the helm of one of America’s most fabled Catholic political families after two older brothers were assassinated. He was 77. (CNS photo | Brian Snyder, Reuters)

The senator and I had met previously on a number of occasions, and as we approached each other in the hallway, he stopped and asked: “Don’t I know you? Aren’t you a friend of Walter Sheridan’s?”

After I responded, the senator smiled, spread the forefinger and middle finger on his right hand in slingshot fashion, and said, “Whenever I look at Walter, and I see him every day, I can’t help but think of Bobby. And whenever Walter looks in here,” his two fingers pointing directly into his eyes, “he’s trying to find Bobby, but he’s just not here.”

Sen. Kennedy disappointed his staff assistant on occasion by not voting the way Walter advised on some issues where the two saw the integrity principle that was at stake from different perspectives. But they respected one another and worked well together.

Ted Kennedy will be remembered as a legislative strategist without peer and a truly great United States senator.

But he never claimed to be perfect in his public or private life. Both his critics and admirers will have lots to talk about for years to come.

Upon hearing the news of the senator’s death, a priest I know asked whether or not he would be buried in the church.

Of course he will, I said; he was a Catholic in good standing.

True, he was divorced and remarried. But there was an annulment and he had the benefit of the sacraments.

Some will ask whether he was able to obtain the annulment because he was a Kennedy. This excerpt from Adam Clymer’s 1999 biography may or may not help clarify things:

“Ted was able to take Communion (at his mother’s funeral) because the Catholic Church had granted him an annulment a couple of months before. He and his office never discussed it, but Joan (his first wife) said years later she had not opposed it, and that the ground Ted had cited was that his marriage vow to be faithful had not been honestly made.”

In the eyes of the church there is no marriage if the persons entering into it are not free to marry (i.e., already bound to another in marriage), do not enter freely into the marriage (there must be no coercion), do not intend to be faithful to the other, do not intend the marriage to be permanent, and do not have the physical or psychological capacity to make the marriage work.

The annulment process looks at all of these elements, and if there is proof of fraud or misrepresentation on any count, there is, the church declares, no marriage.

I was told by a mutual friend, but have no other proof, that upon learning of his terminal cancer, Ted Kennedy had a meeting with Joan, his first wife, for purposes of apology and personal forgiveness. I have no way of verifying that, nor am I inclined to want to check it out.

Judgment is God’s work, not mine.

Ted was too ill to attend his sister Eunice’s funeral a few weeks ago. I suspect they are together now with their other siblings, surrounding a mother who died at age 104 and who will be remembered as one who said, “The most important element in human life is faith. If God were to take away all his blessings, health, physical fitness, wealth, intelligence and leave me with but one gift, I would ask for faith, for with faith in him and his goodness, mercy and love for me, and belief in everlasting life, I believe I could suffer the loss of my other gifts and be happy.”

As Ted remarked in eulogizing his mother at her funeral, “She was ambitious not only for our success, but for our souls.”

Fr. Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.

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