Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley quietly absorbed a lot of criticism from the right for presiding at last Saturday's funeral
for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy because of Kennedy's longstanding support for abortion rights. Throughout the service it was unclear what O'Malley was thinking or how he was feeling about the episode, though some conservative critics tried to read into his solemn visage a distaste for the task at hand.
But in an unusually direct response to those views and his critics, O'Malley wrote in a blog post
Wednesday night that he disagreed "in the strongest terms" with those who argued that Kennedy did not deserve a Catholic funeral, and he said such critics do "irreparable damage to the communion of the Church."
O'Malley also revealed that during his brief chat with President Obama at the funeral he was able to lobby him on health care reform, telling Obama that the bishops "are anxious to support a plan for universal health care, but we will not support a plan that will include a provision for abortion or could open the way to abortions in the future."
The cardinal wrote that the president "was gracious in the short time we spoke, he listened intently to what I was saying." That is no small feat of diplomacy given the heat Obama has taken from the Catholic bishops in the past, and the fierce opposition his current efforts to reform health care have sparked from a number of prelates.
As far as presiding at Kennedy's funeral (a Jesuit priest and friend of the Kennedy's was the chief celebrant of the Mass, and the family's parish priest gave the homily), O'Malley would brook no objections:
"As Archbishop of Boston, I considered it appropriate to represent the Church at this liturgy out of respect for the Senator, his family, those who attended the Mass and all those who were praying for the Senator and his family at this difficult time. We are people of faith and we believe in a loving and forgiving God from whom we seek mercy."
O'Malley said he was also following in the path of Pope Benedict XVI, who responded to Kennedy's letter to him in July with a personal message of his own
, which O'Malley said reflected the pastoral concern of Jesus, "the Good Shepherd who leaves none of his flock behind." O'Malley went on to rebuke his critics, saying:
"We will stop the practice of abortion by changing the law, and we will be successful in changing the law if we change people's hearts. We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss."
"At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church."
"If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure. Jesus' words to us were that we must love one another as He loves us. Jesus loves us while we are still in sin. He loves each of us first, and He loves us to the end."
"Our ability to change people's hearts and help them to grasp the dignity of each and every life, from the first moment of conception to the last moment of natural death, is directly related to our ability to increase love and unity in the Church, for our proclamation of the Truth is hindered when we are divided and fighting with each other."
O'Malley was clear in expressing his "great disappointment" at Kennedy's pro-choice record, calling it "a tragic sense of lost opportunity." But he said that the tremendous outpouring for Kennedy was not only a recognition of the good that the senator did in his life, but also for the impressive legacy of the entire Kennedy clan, starting with the strong Catholic faith of the matriarch, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.
From the start of the mourning period for Kennedy, it was clear many disagreed.
Father Tom Euteneuer, president of the pro-life group Human Life International, said
"Kennedy's positions on a variety of issues have been a grave scandal for decades, and to honor this 'Catholic' champion of the culture of death with a Catholic funeral is unjust to those who have actually paid the price of fidelity."
"There was very little about Ted Kennedy's life that deserves admiration from a spiritual or moral point of view," Euteneuer said. "He was probably the worst example of a Catholic statesman that one can think of. When all is said and done, he has distorted the concept of what it means to be a Catholic in public life more than anyone else in leadership today."
Robert Royal, president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, also called O'Malley's decision to allow Kennedy's Catholic funeral to be public a "grave scandal
," one that compares to the sexual abuse crisis. "The damage may be irreversible," Royal concluded.
The Boston Globe's religion writer Michael Paulson has a roundup of other criticisms -- as well as praise for Kennedy and O'Malley -- at his blog, "Articles of Faith