Kennedy debates continue -- in Boston

I realize that many GetReligion readers are very, very, very tired of reading posts about the mainstream press coverage of the internal Catholic disputes about the doctrinal and liturgical content of the funeral rites for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

If so, please skip ahead, because these issues are very much alive -- at least in Boston.

This is a story that is genuinely stretching the borders of what can and cannot be covered in a daily newspaper or even in the bottomless digital well that is an online edition. So let's state right up front that Godbeat veteran Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe has poured out an ocean of digital ink on these issues in the past week or so and some of the information he has reported has even made it into the dead-tree-pulp edition.

But to see what he is up against, please give serious attention to the content in the following weblog post about the protests by Catholic conservatives about the decision by Cardinal Sean O'Malley to allow the fiercely pro-abortion-rights senator to receive the kind of awesome, glowing, public funeral that he received. The post opens with a giant chunk of the online O'Malley response. Please, click right here and explore. Follow the links.

From the cardinal's perspective, as noted in the main Globe story, the key fact in all of this is that O'Malley has accused many pro-life Catholics of being too negative and divisive. Straight from the cardinal's weblog, that sounds like this:

At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church. If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure. Jesus' words to us were that we must love one another as He loves us. Jesus loves us while we are still in sin. He loves each of us first, and He loves us to the end. Our ability to change people's hearts and help them to grasp the dignity of each and every life, from the first moment of conception to the last moment of natural death, is directly related to our ability to increase love and unity in the Church, for our proclamation of the Truth is hindered when we are divided and fighting with each other.

The cardinal's unusual public response is clearly the big news hook here. No doubt about that.

However, the dead-tree-pulp story has to crunch the viewpoint of the Catholic conservatives down to one simple response. We are told that the negative reaction was huge, but we only get to read one point of view in that wave of protest:

The cardinal's statement comes after criticism, in the form of hundreds of phone calls and e-mails to the archdiocesan headquarters and comments by bloggers and some antiabortion organizations taking the cardinal to task for participating in the Kennedy funeral. An archdiocesan spokesman said most of the complaints have come from out of state.

Later, there is this:

Raymond Arroyo, news director at Eternal Word Television Network, was among the sharpest critics. In his blog, he wrote: "The prayer intercessions at the funeral Mass, the endless eulogies, the image of the cardinal archbishop of Boston reading prayers, and finally Cardinal McCarrick interring the remains sent an uncontested message: One may defy church teaching, publicly lead others astray, deprive innocent lives of their rights, and still be seen a good Catholic, even an exemplary one."

There are several elephants in this very symbolic sanctuary.

Family 1One of the most important is best explored through Paulson's previous reporting on the views of Cardinal O'Malley on the hot topic of whether Catholics who consistently and loudly oppose their church's core teachings should be denied Holy Communion. For example, during the 2004 White House campaign, with Sen. John Kerry in the local Catholic mix, there was this take from O'Malley:

Last summer, on the day before his installation as archbishop of Boston, he issued a statement declaring: "A Catholic politician who holds a public, prochoice position should not be receiving Communion and should on their own volition refrain from doing so. The church presumes that each person is receiving in good faith. It is not our policy to deny Communion. It is up to the individual."

Then in 2007, there was another soundbite that has been repeated often in the past week or so:

Acknowledging that Catholic voters in Massachusetts generally support Democratic candidates who are in favor of abortion rights, O'Malley said, "I think that, at times, it borders on scandal as far as I'm concerned."

"However, when I challenge people about this, they say, 'Well, bishop, we're not supporting [abortion rights],' " he said. "I think there's a need for people to very actively dissociate themselves from those unacceptable positions, and I think if they did that, then the party would have to change."

Paulson also followed up on some of these issues in a 2008 Q&A with the cardinal. Note throughout all of this the presence of phrases that soften the cardinal's response, such as "borders on scandal" and "I think there's a need" for Catholics to avoid actions that clash with the church -- a need, not a requirement.

How does one fit all of this detail into a daily news feature?

Also, it is possible that the views of the Catholic conservatives themselves are too complex to cram into one or two soundbites.

Most media reports have said that the issue at hand was whether or not Kennedy should be granted a Catholic funeral -- period. Actually, there were a wide variety of options that could, in theory, have been chosen. At the very least, there were four (with many, many variations in between):

* The Kennedy family could have been denied a Catholic funeral.

* Archdiocesan officials could have granted a Catholic funeral, while insisting that it be private.

* The family could have, with the help of sympathetic clergy, planned a public funeral in a parish controlled by a religious order, with the limited participation of the cardinal. Under this option, the details of the service would have largely remained in the hands of the family and the clergy who approved the choices made by the Kennedys. It would seem that this is what happened.

* The senator could have been granted the honor of a funeral Mass in the archdiocesan cathedral, with the cardinal as a celebrant, assisted by legions of bishops and other church officials.

There were conservatives who argued for option one, for a variety of reasons. Others would have said that a private rite was more appropriate. Many, clearly, were offended by option three. Was option four even requested by the Kennedys? To know the answer to that question would require information from the family or the archdiocese and neither camp has a motive to talk.

However, to better understand the concerns on the right, please consider the top of this commentary by Phil Lawler at the weblog. This is rather long and detailed. That's the point.

A week after the death of Ted Kennedy, the relevant question is not whether the Massachusetts Senator deserved a Catholic funeral, but whether he deserved a ceremony of public acclamation so grand and sweeping that it might, to the untutored observer, have seemed more like an informal canonization.

We cannot know the state of Ted Kennedy's soul when he finally succumbed to brain cancer. We are told that he was visited regularly by a priest in his last days; we assume that he made a sincere confession and received absolution. We can -- and should, and do-- pray that he receives the same sort of merciful judgment that we wish for ourselves.

That indeed is the purpose of a Catholic funeral: not to honor the deceased, but to pray for the salvation of his soul. Yet that central purpose was never acknowledged during the long, elaborate ceremony last Saturday in Boston's basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help: the beautiful structure known to local residents at Mission Church. From the first greeting to the final commendation, there was never a hint that Ted Kennedy might need prayers, that his eternal salvation could be in question -- that he, like the rest of us sinners, can only rely on the compassion of an all-merciful God. On the contrary, at several points during the service, priests and eulogists stated flatly that Ted Kennedy was already in heaven, enjoying the rewards of a virtuous life.

The great, unanswered question hanging over the congregation in Mission Church, and in the minds of the millions who watched the funeral Mass on television, was how the Catholic Church could arrange such a highly public tribute to a man who, over the years, was arguably the most powerful political opponent of the Catholic position on the central moral issue of our time: the battle to protect human life.

This assumes, of course, that one accepts Rome's point of view, and that of the early church, about abortion and the sanctity of human life.

But there is one more important set of ecclesiastical guidelines that must be discussed, if journalists are serious about the doctrinal issues involved in this complex and emotional story.

pope-funeral5-15gThat document is the 2004 letter to the U.S. Catholic bishops from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled "Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles." In its key passage, it states:

5. Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person's formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church's teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

The author of these guidelines? That would be Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who, months later, became Pope Benedict XVI.

Note this: It is clear that Kennedy never publicly bought to an "end the objective situation of sin," in terms of his many disagreements with the moral theology and dogmas of his church. However, it is clear that priests ministered to him -- often, by all reports -- during the final years, months and weeks of his life. Journalists cannot demand answers to questions about a man's last confession, now can they? I hope not.

However, that's not the issue that inspired many, not all, of the calls and emails protesting the content and style of the content of the Kennedy rites. Many were asking an interesting question: Why did Kennedy's funeral express such glowing, rock-solid certainty about his legacy and eternal destiny, as opposed to the modest language and requests for prayers for the soul of, oh, Pope John Paul II? Yes, the crowds chanted for the pope's canonization, and the pageantry was awesome, but the language of the rite itself was straight forward and modest.

Perhaps this tells us as much about the beliefs of John Paul as it does about the beliefs of those who planned the Kennedy rites.

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