Sen. Kennedy, Abortion, and the Party of the Little Guy

The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy has unleashed for me a flood of memories and triggered a number of rueful meditations.  I come from a family of intense Kennedyphiles.  Both of my parents — Irish and Catholic to the bone — deeply admired the Kennedy family.  My mother was especially fond of Rose, the pious and energetic matriarch of the clan.  Magazines and newspapers reporting the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy were cherished keepsakes in our home when I was growing up; and the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy (when I was eight) is one of the most vivid and poignant memories of my childhood.

For my father, the Kennedys represented the continuation of the great Democratic tradition stretching back through Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman, FDR, all the way to Al Smith.  One of my earliest political memories was joining in with my father in lustily booing Richard Nixon as he appeared on the TV screen accepting the nomination of the Republican Party at their 1972 convention in Miami.  My father just didn’t care for Republicans, seeing them as the representatives of the interests of the rich.  Democrats, he often told me, stick up for the little guy, the oppressed, those who fall through the cracks of the society.  And they were, he argued, the politicians most in line with the instincts of the Catholic social teaching tradition.  My uncle Tommy, another died-in-the-wool Democrat, often worried that, as my father moved into the upper middle class, he might commit the unforgiveable sin of voting Republican!

Now that’s the political background out of which I came.  My own thinking evolved in response to the “malaise” of the Jimmy Carter years and the success of Ronald Reagan’s embrace of the free market and his principled opposition to Communist ideology.  But I will confess that much of my father’s fierce Democratic sensibility remained in me, especially as I deepened my appreciation of the Catholic Church’s social doctrine in regard to the poor and the disenfranchised.  I suppose you could say that I was, like a lot of people in my generation, a bit eclectic in my politics, drawing inspiration from both sides of the spectrum.

As my thinking continued to develop, the greatest problem I began to have with the Democratic Party finally had nothing to do with economic theory or even with geo-political strategy; it had to do with abortion.  I understood very well the arguments of feminists and women’s rights advocates concerning freedom of choice, but I just couldn’t buy them, since the choice in question was the option to snuff out an innocent life.  When the Democratic Party embraced abortion-rights as a plank in its platform and eventually as a non-negotiable principle, I found myself on the horns of a dilemma:  how could I reconcile my father’s party of the little guy with the party that was allowing for abortion on demand?

And this brings me back to Ted Kennedy and the Kennedy legacy.  I think it is safe to say that, over the past thirty years, there has been no stronger and more consistent advocate of abortion rights than this late “lion of the Senate.”  But it was not always so.  In 1971, just two years before Roe v. Wade, Sen Kennedy responded to a man named Tom Dennelly of Great Neck, N.Y. who had written to the senator expressing his views on the matter of abortion.  Here is how Kennedy responded:  “While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life.   Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized — the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.”  And he went on:  “when history looks back at this era it should recognize this generation as the one which cared for human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.”

For my money, that’s one of the best and most theoretically consistent defenses of the pro-life position ever articulated.  And it came quite appropriately from the leader of the party of the little guy.   In 1971 anyway, opposition to abortion was a naturally Democratic position, whereas today a pro-life Democrat is practically an oxymoron, and almost every major Democratic politician, locally or nationally, feels obligated to parrot pro-choice ideology if he wants his party’s nomination.

Edward Kennedy was in many ways a great and significant legislator.  In regard to civil rights, nuclear disarmament, protecting the interests of the disabled, health care reform, etc., his achievements are substantive indeed.  But his reversal of position on the most compelling moral issue of the day is, I think, an indication of a fatal inconsistency at the heart of Democratic politics.  And it goes a long way to explaining why people like me, who are by tradition predisposed to vote for the party of the little guy, balk, hesitate, and protest.

Fr. Robert Barron


Fr. Robert Barron, S.T.D. is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

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  • Pingback: Sen. Kennedy, Abortion, and the Party of the Little Guy | Pelican Project Pro-Life()

  • jvista

    Bravo, Fr. Barron. This is exactly the sentiment of the book “Can a Catholic Be a Democrat?” by David Carlin, which I heartily recommend.

    PS – Love your Word on Fire podcast! Although I prefer the old background music over the new… 🙂

  • SMG 62

    I can relate to Fr. Barron’s experience. My mother is still a Kennedy fan and was sad to see the end of an era with the passing of Ted Kennedy, even though she would not have voted for Kennedy if her were in New York. My parents remember the excitement of John’s youthful presidency and the thrill of seeing a Catholic finally elected president. But I can also relate to Father’s later disillusionment with the Democratic party. After the mediocrity of Jimmy Carter, I was pleased to cast my first vote as an 18 year old for Ronald Reagan. Back then, I balanced that vote with one for Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Mario Cuomo, but I rarely vote Democrat any more. It seems to me that when they abandonded the unborn, they lost all sense of right and wrong – the egregious sin has blinded them and they are wrong on more issues than abortion.

    I also see now that their supposed concern for the poor has only encouraged dependency, and their constant push for more dollars for education (unfortunately unopposed by the other major party) has not led to more successfully educated citizens, but only to enormous waste. It is not lacking in compassion toward the poor to believe that giving tax money to a wasteful government system is a far cry from giving to a charity that can be held accountable for its use of funds.

    I don’t believe that the Democrats really have the poor in mind even in their push for “health care reform”. If they did, they would design a program specifically for those who need it. Instead, they are making a grab at the entire health care system, and they somehow believe, or pretend to believe, that such a system will be efficient and will reduce costs. Since that is obviously not true, and since they are not simply trying to help the poor with their health care bill, one has to wonder what their goals now truly are.

    The Democrats in power now are socialists. They want to take our money and give it back to us as they see fit. Knowing the moral compass they follow, I do not want them deciding how I should live. I don’t really know what the Democrats used to stand for – I wonder if John Kennedy would have opposed many of the things his brother supported – but I know what they stand for now, and for me, my sense of right and wrong outweigh any sense of loyalty to my family history as an Irish Catholic Democrat.

  • My father was also a Democratic, but he also was a union steward and he saw how unions seek the power they desired would destroy the Democratic party.

    These thoughts have been in the union play book for a long time, they just found someone who was gullible enough to cooperate with their ideology.

  • I too grew up in the Democratic Party. My father was a conservative Democrat – no oxymoron in those days. (See his bio at

    During Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 run for the Presidential nomination, I founded RFK’s campaign organization on my college campus at San Diego State. During the decade of the 1970’s, however, the Democrats left me behind by advancing the culture of death.

    From then on, and enthusiastically after the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s inspiring leadership, I considered myself Republican. During the 1990s, I served three terms as GOP state committeeman in Washington State.

    Then came the presidency of George W. Bush. What a relief, as Bill Clinton’s Administration passed into history! To celebrate, I practiced on the piano and performed for friends, “Hail to the Chief.” As it turned out, Chopin’s Marche Funèbre might have been a better choice.

    When President Bush launched his “shock and awe” campaign against a 3rd world country that never attacked us, I sorely regretted voting for Bush. The tipping point for me was the “morality” party’s stand on torture, i.e. the unwillingness of Bush, and of most congressional Republicans, to outlaw cruel interrogation techniques against helpless captives. My formal resignation is at,

    Leaving the GOP left me in a quandary. I could hardly return to the Democrats, a party that militantly promotes the culture of death. Moreover, I view third parties as politically futile in the context of the American political system.

    By a sort of process of elimination, then, I became a man without a party. Since 2007 I’ve counted myself among the one-third of Americans who call ourselves independent.

  • qhrpfu

    I think we have to recall the struggle within the Democrat Party between the Catholic Kennedys and the Protestant Johnson. The Kennedys had to be very sharp to win the nomination away from LBJ, and dissed him constantly during their administration. The Kennedys were looking to bring Catholic thought and its approach to law into the mainstream where it would help make for a sounder basis for much of the American tradition (even though they disavowed that publicly). But they showed themselves willing to both support an equal footing for those who had been left without power, even in the stronghold of the party, the South, where it would shake up that society and shake the Dem’s control, as well as seeing it necessary to police the integrity of the Unions.

    When Johnson took over, he was very crafty in undermining the Kennedy approach, even using the Kennedys themselves to provide cover on Civil Rights, which were then eviscerated by the excesses of his Great Society, which, instead of following the shrewd insights of Daniel Patrick Moynihan for JFK on the problems with the Black Family, further destroyed that Family structure through welfare and dependency and removing the Father from the family and other corruptions. He felt he had the last laugh on the Kennedys, providing a way for the Dems to keep their constituencies dependent and dependable, and that left the Catholic approach high and dry. He created a wave that, if Ted wanted any credibility within the Party, he simply would be forced to ride. Instead of realizing that moral courage is the essence of political leadership and integrity, he caved, whether from emotional distress and confusion from the deaths of his brothers, or from reaction to his own peccadillo with Miss Kopeckne, and his principled statements started to lose any power beyond his well-cultivated cult of Irish, liberal, and now feminist, followers. He simply became an elitist, appreciated by his rich friends, but ineffectual in pursuing any meaningful and authentic thought to counter the unprincipled socialist dogmas now sweeping the Democratic power centers. He was left in a dead end, and many of those willing to listen before, went for the moral principles represented by Reagan. (Remember that Reagan’s inner circle of confidants and activists were virtually all Catholics.) And the bishops never helped him out of it, because most of them were mesmerized by it.

  • theshahids

    I’m forty years old and quite frankly, my political positions were fostered during the debacle of the Carter years and the re-emergence of patriotism during the Reagan years. To this day, I truly cannot understand how a practicing Catholic, aware of his mortality, can vote for the Democrat Party due to their unabashed worship of abortion (which is exactly what it is- if you don’t believe me try to reason with a pro-abort.) I am a Catholic who grew up in the south defending my faith against a huge majority of Southern Baptists who were convinced that I was going to hell for worshipping Mary. At ten years old, I had a knock-down, drag-out fight with my close friend and neighbor defending the honor of the Blessed Mother (I know it sounds juvenile, but I defended Her the best I knew how at the time – and I have a feeling that though she didn’t approve, she probably understood and loved me for my intense love of Her.) Growing up Catholic like that leaves one with a strong faith that doesn’t bend- that’s why I have little to no respect for the male Kennedy’s, especially Ted. Their entire lives have been full of the trappings of the rich and elite, bought and paid for by ‘little guys’ they claimed to represent, while all the time yielding their Catholic ideals for political expediency. Though I pray for his immortal soul, he has returned to dust, like the rest of us will also. Politically speaking though- Good riddance.

  • SeanReynoldsNZ

    You Americans have a choice: Back a party that states it promotes a culture of death and does; Support a party that pays lip service to the Culture of Life and somewhat promotes the culture of death too; Or start a new party that will appeal to those who believe in the sanctity of human life from conception till natural death and supports the whole lot of Catholic Social Doctrine.

    My question: Why stick with the Republicans or the Democrats? Even those parties started off as small and insignificant. Lay the groundwork for something new for the next generation of Americans.