Was Kennedy "More Right Than Wrong"?
To say that Sen. Kennedy was flawed is to say that he was a human being. To dismiss his career because of his stance on abortion is to be ignorant of the complicated way the issue of abortion manifested itself in the early 1970s: I think Kennedy got it wrong but I do not find it difficult to understand why and how he got it wrong. If the pro-life leaders would stop ranting for a second and study that history they might become more effective at advancing their cause. Besides, Ted Kennedy got many more things right than he got wrong.
Honestly, what does it mean to say that Kennedy “got many more things right than he got wrong”? I cannot tell that it means anything other than, “Kennedy is one of my political tribe, and so I find it easy to forgive his faults.” What, surely Winters does not propose something so trivializing as a weighted check list: “Kennedy was in favor of expanding welfare, and we’ll weight that at an 8. He was in favor of increased immigration, and we’ll give that a 10. Unfortunately, he was in favor of abortion, we’ll weight that at a 4. So far a +14 total, what next?”
Political and moral issues are not trading cards with varying numbers of hit points which can be stacked, compared and rated. Some certainly are more grave than others (and indeed, I think that any reasonable analysis would find Kennedy — with the exception of civil rights — to have generally been on the wrong side of the most important moral issues with the most far-reaching effects) but really I can see little point in counting and weighing issues. At best, which issues a Catholic politician seems to be in union with the Church’s thinking on, and on which he chooses to defy Church teaching, is indicative of his worldview.
From a Catholic perspective on the public square, the concerning thing about Winters’ assertion is that it is based on a highly tribal and dualistic approach to politics. According to this, Kennedy is lauded for his positions on topics ranging from education and minimum wage to immigration and health care, because the author believes that the progressive policies supported by Kennedy are likely to contribute positively to the common good — and because support for these policies marks Kennedy as belonging to the “good guys”. However, Kennedy’s often forceful opposition to Church teaching on topics such as abortion, cloning, embryonic stem cell research and gay marriage is considered “minor” or “incidental to his record”, primarily because opposition to Church teaching on these topics is considered an acceptable (and indeed, expected) failing within the tribe of progressive politics. Since actually following the Church on issues such as abortion, marriage and euthenasia is generally seen as an attribute of the “bad guys” by the progressive political tribe, even those members of the tribe who consider themselves in tune with the Church on these issues (which on abortion, I believe Winters does) are urged by the sense of political tribalism to see dissent from the Church on those issues as emminently forgivable.
Picture, for instance, if Catholic members of the progressive political tribe would be as willing to consider it “minor” and “incidental” if Kennedy had been a down-the-line liberal on all issues except for being a vocal supporter of the Iraq War (ala Senator Leiberman) or being an enthusiastic supporter of capital punishment. I think we can be assured that such a deviation from liberal orthodoxoy would be considered far less “incidental” by Catholic progressives than his deviation from Church teaching on abortion. They are used to telling themselves, “Lots of otherwise good people are vocal and enthusiastic supporters of abortion” but they are not used to telling themselves “Lots of otherwise good people are vocal and enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq War.” And yet, from a truly Catholic perspective it is at least possible to come to a differing judgement on the one, and totally impossible on the other.
Perhaps a better (and less tribal) question to ask about a Catholic politician than Winters’ “more wrong than right” is: Is there any topic on which he defied the political consensus of his party and risked his political career because of a moral stand drawn from Catholic teaching.
In this regard, it is unfortunate that the late senator lacked the courage of Catholic convictions.