Signs of Repentance or of the Status Quo?

A canon lawyer friend of mine says Senator Edward Kennedy had a canonical right to a church funeral. Not that my friend is a Kennedy fan. He just thinks the law reads that way. I think he is right, though whether it should read that way is another matter. Towards the end of his life Mr. Kennedy attended Mass, led family prayers, and met with priests. These activities, my canon lawyer friend contends, are canonically acceptable “signs of repentance”.

“Signs of repentance?” you may wonder. Why are these needed? Senator Kennedy was well-known for stances at odds with Catholic teaching. For instance, he supported abortion rights when he should have defended the right to life for unborn babies. He advocated experimentation on embryonic human beings when he should have stood up for their rights not to be manipulated and killed. And he also supported same-sex marriage when he should have upheld marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

The positions Senator Kennedy took on those issues are, according to Catholic teaching, objectively gravely sinful. Indeed, they are so sinful that someone who does them should refrain from receiving Holy Communion (Canon 916). If he does not, and if he manifestly and obstinately persists in them, then he should not be admitted to Holy Communion (Canon 915).

This is not a question of judging a man’s soul, but of his public actions. Such actions are, in themselves, contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. A Catholic who publicly supports abortion rights, embryonic experimentation, and same-sex marriage misrepresents to others the incompatibility of such things with Catholicism. Whatever a politician’s personal culpability before God, he is a “manifest sinner” in terms of his public actions when he supports such evils.

Canon 1184 says that church funeral rights are to be denied certain groups of people, which includes “manifest sinners”, “unless they gave some signs of repentance before death”. The argument that justifies Senator Kennedy’s church funeral says that as he prepared to die, Senator Kennedy participated in Mass, led family prayers, and was visited by priests. He also sent a letter to the Pope in which he acknowledged that he had not been perfect but that his faith sustained him. These activities are interpreted by canonists, including my canon lawyer friend, as “signs of repentance”. So Senator Kennedy got his church funeral.

As far as Mr. Kennedy is concerned, I pray for the repose of his soul. Since I have more interest here in the general question of what ought to be than I do the particular question of whether Ted Kennedy met the current requirements, I will recast the discussion in general terms.

Suppose a politician is well-known for his support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Suppose he is a Catholic and suppose he has been told repeatedly by bishops and others what the Church teaches and of his grave responsibility to promote laws consistent it, including regarding the rights of the unborn and the defense of marriage. Furthermore, suppose despite all the politician has been told by the Church, he continues to support abortion, embryonic experimentation and same-sex marriage. Furthermore, he denies that his support of these evils is incompatible with his faith, so he receives Holy Communion at Mass, leads family prayers, and visits with priest friends.

Now suppose the Catholic politician becomes terminally ill and goes to his death bed. He has Mass in his home and receives Holy Communion, leads the family prayers, and visits with priest friends. He writes a letter to his bishop admitting that he is a fallible human being, mentions the good things he did as a politician, and asks for the bishop’s prayers. He says nothing in the letter about his public abortion rights activities, embryonic experimentation, or his public support for same-sex marriage.

Under the circumstances, do the activities of receiving Holy Communion, leading family prayers, and visiting with priests amount to “signs of repentance”? Canonists may count them as such but in the situation I just outlined, we can’t say that they really are. Why not? Because the politician received Holy Communion, led prayers, etc., before he was on his death bed and all the time maintained that his manifestly, objectively sinful activities were compatible with his Catholicism. How, then, can we suppose his death bed actions show he has repudiated his earlier actions?

As I say, I prefer not to address the issue in terms of Senator Kennedy’s case, even though I take elements of my example from it. Unfortunately, my example could apply to many Catholic politicians. That leads me to wonder whether Canon 1184 is helpful if it is to be understood as permitting a church funeral for Catholic politicians under the circumstances I have just outlined.

The requirement for “signs of repentance” in Canon 1184 seems to be there to prevent the “public scandal to the faith” that a church funeral for a “manifest sinner” would otherwise cause or seriously risk. But if, as in the case just outlined, what are taken as “signs of repentance” can’t tell us anything about whether the politician came to see his support of forty million legal abortions, embryonic experimentation, and same-sex marriage as incompatible with the Catholic faith, how can a church funeral for such a politician avoid giving scandal? How will it be taken by many people or most people to mean anything but that these things are not, after all, serious evils and incompatible with the Catholic faith?

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  • Mr. Brumley, in my opinion, is dead on accurate in his analysis. The only thing of value that I would add is that I was disappointed in Cardinal McCarrick. As one of the most recognizable members of the American Catholic heirarchy, it thought that his participation in the service somehow made Kennedy’s situation “not so bad”. Maybe not a cannonical problem, but certianly a public image problem. If McCarrick was okay with Kennedy, why should we be?

  • Reading the letter was all about political manipulation of the ‘catholic vote’. Bloggers were all a twitter that there was no public Vatican statement of condolences as there were for with Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was a saintly woman by all accounts. So the Left has to do *something* SO why NOT use the letter, used Ted Kennedy’s death and religion is always so useful too,
    for political advantage like Micheal Jackson’s family continues to use his
    ‘corpse’ to make money. It’s absolutely nauseating to watch the Catholic liberals jump through the hoops like a bunch of pink prancing poodles.

    The irony is that they will indeed memorialize Kennedy with a ‘health care’ bill that will the crowning glory to the Culture of Death Ted Kennedy labored so hard to build.

    You will know a tree by it’s fruits.


  • Warren Jewell

    We got one of the usual ‘celebrity canonizations’ – American Catholicism has again been poorly led, poorly served, poorly treated. A small, private family funeral Mass was the most that was called for.

    I can see how Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, Archbishop of the Boston archdiocese, was between a rock and a hard place what with the usual pseudo-Catholic American ‘Catholics’ within our corrupted culture, especially in its New England/Boston variant. But, he didn’t have to show up himself, should have disinvited all other hierarchy, should have pre-screened every homiletic word offered (and precluded non-ordained homiletic eulogies) and seen to careful editting of the Prayers of the Faithful. The latter were little more than an agenda summary of what-came-before-now-to-come-after.

    And, having publicly repudiated Magisterial teachings and given culture-of-death cover to so many other ‘Catholic’ politicians and other leaders, Senator Kennedy’s contrition should have called for public penance of some sort. He had a year to do that, from learning he was dying to his death. Instead, the American Church permitted this elaborate charade.

  • Christi Derr

    Senator Kennedy’s sin was public. For the sake of educating the faithful and avoiding scandal, his repudiation of that sin needed to be public before granting him a public funeral.
    I do not pretend to know the state of Sen Kennedy’s soul – I pray for Our Savior’s great mercy for him and for all the dying.
    Thank you Mr. Brumley for this article, you articulated the whole case very well.

  • I hesitate to insert myself into this discussion but there is something I must say. Cardinal O’Malley not only permitted Mr. Kennedy’s public funeral, he presided over it. And Cardinal McCarrick gave his blessing at the burial. Mr. Kennedy was ushered into the Hereafter with the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church. We should not be in the business of telling Cardinal O’Malley how to run his archdiocese, or telling Cardinal McCarrick whom he may bury.

    I think that the American culture of dissent infects even faithful, orthodox Catholics like the readers of Catholic Exchange. Our leadership has said that was has happened is appropriate, and if we take exception, we should take the matter to prayer with our Lord, who is the true Head of the Church. Heaven knows I’ve had fireworks with Jesus at times over the actions of our hierarchy. But as Catholics we know that our leadership comes from God. Have they made a mistake in burying Mr. Kennedy with full honors? Perhaps. But now that it has happened I think we need to trust God with the outcome, and be careful of dissent. A dissenting heart is exactly what the Devil is looking for as he seeks to divide and conquer. Please join me in praying for Mr. Kennedy, as well as for Cardinals O’Malley and McCarrick, as they face the almost-impossible task of governing Our Lord’s Church in today’s climate.

  • ldburnley93

    The Catholic Church may have ushered Mr. Kennedy to the door of the Hereafter, but it is not a given that he will be Let In. Mr. Kennedy has some explaining to do!

  • Alvina

    It’s sad that the celebration of Ted Kennedy’s public life received so much public applause during the past week. The Catholic Church is the only church that doesn’t “kick out” it’s members. A lapsed Catholic or a mafia leader or a pitiful elected Senator can plan his/her funeral Mass.

    We pray and trust in God that the souls of the faithfully departed rest in peace.

  • consecrata

    I’m not surprised that Cardinal McCarrick was at Ted Kennedy’s funeral Mass. Isn’t he the one who hid Pope Benedict’s letter from the other Bishops? As far as Ted Kennedy attending Mass, praying with his family…good things all, but while doing that, he, as far as I know, never PUBLICLY renounced his positions on abortion,embryonic stem cell research or gay marriage…he was in favor of them all. Doesn’t the Church teach that if you cause grave evil publicly, then you must repent publicly? Kennedy, like Pelosi, Sebelius, Biden, Daschle, Giulliani, Dodd, et al…ardently promoted abortion, publicly defying the teachings and admonitions of the Church…Kennedy could have had a quiet Catholic funeral…why was he so PUBLICLY LAUDED AND HONORED by Catholic prelates? No wonder Catholics are disheartened and confused…

  • elkabrikir

    In the case of Cardinal McCarrick: “My sheep know me, and I know them.” Kennedy was his sheep. The world loves its own.

    Kennedy resembles Anna Karenina with his alleged “death bed” conversion. I can only imagine what Marriage would’ve looked like had he lived to throw it before the thundering train wreck of Secular Humanism and its child, Homosexual Unions.

    I keep the commandments because I love Christ. The person of Jesus has quenched my thirst with Living Water. To whom would I turn? Even Cardinals sell Kool Aid as they are “only human” and must make a living too.

    While the Pope is manipulated.

    McCarrick is not the church. Bishop Sheen used to say, “Even dead bodies float downstream.” (

    I cling to what is true and beautiful starting with the sacrifice of the mass and the sacraments. Primarily I find God as revealed in my family. Truth is my 17 year old son bringing Debussy’s “Pour Le Piano (Prelude)” to life while his 20 month old sister lies mesmerized in his lap as fingers fly over her face. THAT is truth and beauty.

    Truth and beauty is my husband sweeping up 2 cups of cinnamon which that same baby poured on the floor.

    Hold fast to the face of our Beautiful Savior. Love HIM. Don’t be distracted by the flies swarming around the corpes. Let the dead bury the dead.

    As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

  • lineman

    Politicians don’t care what Catholic Bishops think. The Bishops are largely ignored and dismissed by legislators, indeed people in general (unfortunately Catholics included). Often their words fall on deaf ears, however their actions speak volumes. What impression could one take away from this latest pageant? Maybe it’s that our Bishops will hop, skip and jump to please the powerful. Perhaps that they acquiesce to anyone with influence and would rather be agreeable than Catholic. This need to be liked and approved of must go. It’s time the Church hierarchy realized that the Church is no longer the earthly institution it once was. It does not carry the same influence and is most certainly NOT engaging a Christian culture, ergo the need to be distinctly Catholic. Why won’t our Bishops say (through their actions) to our modern-day Rome, “Repent, and sin no more.”? Maybe in their prayers our leaders will echo the question Peter put to Jesus during his vision on the Appian way, “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?). I’m sure he’ll have an answer.

  • Diana

    The world is minus one less pro-choice Catholic. At the least, Ted Kennedy got away with manslaughter and at the most, murder. He swam to safety at Chappaquiddick. She frantically clawed at the ceiling of the car in her vain attempt to escape the vehicle. He walked past a fire station and several homes, went home, slept it off. The next morning, he conferred with his family and his attorney and then called the police.

    I doubt Ted Kennedy was ever sorry for much of anything he did in life because, after all, he was a Kennedy, and he was entitled. As far as church teaching goes, he thumbed his nose at Church teaching as do all the pro-choice Catholics. Not all but certainly a lot of the Kennedy family members are nominal Catholics, at best. There are a lot of people in this country who have a very negative view of Catholicism because of people like Ted Kennedy.

  • elkabrikir

    Correction. I said McCarrick in my above post. It should be Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston. Sorry for the trouble. And my apologies to Cardinal McCarrick for the mistake.

  • ponerology

    “Canon 1184 says that church funeral rights are to be denied certain groups of people, which includes “manifest sinners”, “unless they gave some signs of repentance before death”.”
    Wondering; did Canon 1184 read this way prior to Vatican II?