Sen. Edward M. Kennedy wrote a letter to the pope. The urgency of the message was evident in the preeminence of the messenger: President Barack Obama himself had handed the letter to Pope Benedict XVI at the end of the historic first meeting between the two leaders in the Vatican last month. The papal spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, was peppered with questions by reporters from around the world. What did the letter say? Had the pope read the letter yet? Had President Obama asked the pope to pray for Senator Kennedy?
With his warm eyes and lyrical laugh, Father Lombardi parried all their inquiries. The two had spoken about many issues: bioethics, Middle East peace, and the economic catastrophe posed to the world's poor by the international recession. There was optimism at the Vatican, he said, that a new era had begun for finding solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems. But in halting Italian, one reporter asked again: What was in that letter from Senator Kennedy?
The Kennedy name has become intertwined with Catholicism in American political life. Rose Kennedy famously went to Mass twice a day, and it could reasonably be said that she had more to worry about than most Catholic mothers.
It is easy to forget the hatred that, for more than 150 years, met Catholics who sought a greater role in public life. The history of American Catholicism is rooted in the Irish and Italian immigrant experience and the clash of cultures that it brought. In 1928, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses along the path of a train that carried the Irish Catholic governor of New York, Al Smith, to a campaign rally in Oklahoma City, where he said, "I have the right to say that any citizen of this country ... [who] votes against me because of my religion, he is not a real, pure, genuine American."
It took a non-Catholic governor of New York to bring real Catholic sensibilities to the White House. Franklin Roosevelt had a Catholic priest as one of his closest political confidantes. The legacy of the New Deal in a time of national crisis was one of caring for working people, lifting the elderly out of poverty, and helping lay the foundation for the civil rights movement.
But it was President John F. Kennedy who truly tore down the ultimate barrier for Catholics in public life. His brother Ted, battered by the untimely deaths of four older siblings and his own survival of both a plane crash and a tragic car accident, found deep personal inspiration in his Catholic faith.
One thing that troubled him most about the rising acrimony in politics was the conservative effort to appropriate Christian language as a political weapon to defeat New Deal Democrats. Senator Kennedy had spoken forcefully against abortion during his first decade in the Senate, but found himself being targeted by Catholic conservatives because of his support for the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. His friend Sen. John Kerry, only the third Catholic to be nominated for the presidency, was targeted in 2004 by conservatives who argued that some Democrats should be denied Communion. For the first time, the Catholic candidate lost the Catholic vote.
Appalled by this politicization of the Holy Eucharist, Senator Kennedy elevated the discussion by helping organize a meeting in 2005 between 11 cardinals and bishops and an equal number of Catholic Democratic senators. Out of the public eye, Senator Kennedy envisioned a chance to find common ground with his church on a multitude of critical issues in the wake of the disastrous war in Iraq, official indifference to global warming, and the hostility in Washington to the plight of (mostly Catholic) Latino immigrants.
In an otherwise cordial meeting, their differing approaches to abortion colored the discussion. Speaking of his Catholic Democratic colleagues in the Senate, Senator Kennedy said afterward, "None of us went into public life to become champions of abortion. We have poured ourselves into this work because we care about people." Without fanfare, he encouraged a more determined effort to decrease abortions by supporting women and families.
In that spirit, his legislative career reads like a chapter from the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church: helping the poor and upholding the dignity of the individual, preserving God's creation, seeking peace at every level of our lives, and serving the common good.
Senator Kennedy passed away Tuesday after a year of courageously confronting cancer, all the while laboring with his staff to lay the foundation for a new health care system. He read with dismay about the campaigns this summer by some surly conservative Catholic groups to use abortion to defeat the church's own longstanding efforts to provide universal access to healing and health.
Rather than just asking Pope Benedict to pray for divine intervention to cure his own illness, it seems likely that Senator Kennedy wrote that letter in search of a better church - one that bridges the divide between conservative and progressive Catholics.
Ted Kennedy exuded a spirit of selflessness in the thousands of other letters he wrote in his career: to families of the victims of Sept. 11, to the loved ones he met at the funerals of Massachusetts soldiers killed in Iraq, and to people both high and ordinary who were afflicted by every manner of cataclysm in their own lives.
His life was truly a witness to what is dearest to us as Catholics: searching for truth, persevering in the face of adversity, and living primarily for the well-being of others.
Dr. Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats, is a pediatric specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend serves on the board of Catholic Democrats and is Edward M. Kennedy's niece.