The Death of Edward Kennedy and the End of an Era

The public accomplishments of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who died on Aug. 25, will be discussed and debated for years, and perhaps decades. He was the only one of the Kennedy brothers who took the United States Senate seriously, and if one is hard put to name specific pieces of major legislation on which his imprint was writ large, he was nonetheless a “Senate man” in a way that neither Jack nor Bobby ever was—and thus a popular figure in insider Washington. As for his shift from critic of Roe v. Wade to pro-choice paladin, that has been commented on sufficiently by others. Let me only add to the public record that the late Henry Hyde, a pro-lifer to the core, told me that he had once said to Kennedy, “Ted, if you’d take leadership of our movement, we’d sweep the country.” Given the confusions of our moral culture and our law, that might have been too optimistic. But we’ll never know, as Kennedy took a different path, and among other things, ended up committing calumny against Robert Bork.

Ted Kennedy’s death does, however, mark the end of an era, and in several ways.

It marks—or should mark—the end of an era in which Catholics in the United States identity “concern for the poor” with big-government-funded and big-government-managed welfare programs. That the well-intentioned initiatives of the Great Society, which Ted Kennedy supported, ended up destroying urban neighborhoods and families while creating massive welfare dependency was acknowledged by many, including liberals, during the welfare reform debates of the mid-1990s—but not by the senior senator from Massachusetts, who was, to put it gently, nowhere near the forefront of the reform movement.

John Paul II’s critique of welfare dependency in the 1991 encyclical, “Centesimus Annus ,” and the late Pope’s proposal that true care for the poor means the empowerment of poor people through their incorporation into networks of productivity and exchange, never made much of a dent on Ted Kennedy, who was not very helpful in helping poor children to obtain vouchers that allowed them to attend Catholic schools that worked rather than public schools that didn’t. In the aftermath of Kennedy’s death, many of those critical of the late senator’s record on the life issues nevertheless praised him as an advocate for the poor. Surely, though, it’s past time to consider just what advocacy for the poor means, in a Catholic context. No one does the urban poor a favor by supporting programs that maintain the welfare plantation.

Ted Kennedy’s death also marks the symbolic end of an era of tribal Irish Catholicism in America, although perhaps not in the way some eulogists imagined. Kennedy was said by one commentator to have been the pivotal figure in transforming rote Catholic obedience to hierarchical authority into critical Catholic discernment of one’s moral obligations, especially in terms of contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. It’s arguably much more faithful to the truth of that transformation, however, to describe it as one from a culturally-transmitted Catholicism, in which the teaching authority of the Church was given the benefit of the doubt, to a do-it-yourself Catholicism in which claims of conscience, however ill-formed, trump all. Ted Kennedy was no theologian, but the role played by dissident theologians like Robert Drinan and Charles Curran in Kennedy’s becoming the public embodiment of the latter Catholic style will bear close examination by historians of theology in late-20th century America.

Finally, the death of Senator Kennedy ought to end the infatuation of many American Catholics (and others) with the Kennedy family. Camelot’s last living major figure has died. The successor generation is simply not of the same heft as Jack, Bobby, and Ted. From Jack Kennedy’s election to the House of Representatives in 1946 until Ted Kennedy’s death in 2009 was a 63-year run—13 years longer than that of the Virginia dynasty among the founders (figured from Washington’s taking command of the Continental Army in 1775 to Monroe’s leaving the presidency in 1825). It’s over. We would do the next generation of Kennedys a favor by acknowledging that.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • hsmarc

    Let us hope that the Senator was truly repentant in his final hours and a statement expressing his remorse for supporting the culture of death is forthcoming.

  • SMG 62

    “It’s over. We would do the next generation of Kennedys a favor by acknowledging that. ”


    This article is probably the best explanation for why Senator Kennedy’s funeral/public Catholic celebration was so inappropriate – especially the second-last paragraph. He represented the attitude that the acceptance of Catholic teaching is optional. And the discussion of whether Kennedy’s favorite programs helped the poor is also important. I hope my Irish Catholic relatives who are more Democrat than Catholic will finally notice this reality. Our salvation is in Christ Jesus, not in supposedly Catholic social programs.

  • joanspage

    As a man with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, I feel both Ted Kennedy and Ethel Shriver, his sister, helped the disabled in America.

    I do not agree with pro-choice Catholics. However, Kennedy did help pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. That may not mitigate his abortion stance but it did enhance the chances with those with limitations like me. He also championed special ed.

    I think Special Olympics, withn Shriver founded, helped society accept the disabled.

    I note that the children of both Kennedy and Shriver are advocates for the disabled. I believr their cousins as a whole support this cause, which is a very just one.

  • momof11

    While Senator Kennedy was instrumental in legislation beneficial to those with disabilities, in large part due to the influence of his sister Eunice Shriver, it seems to me that his support for abortion and euthanasia have and the change in attitudes that legalizing such things is in the long run harmful to those with disabilities. We no longer counsel parents on what the needs of their disabled child will be, we counsel them to kill the child and be rid of the problem as an easier and more cost effective way of dealing with the disability. It is indeed a slippery slope we are on!