The Crucible of Ted Kennedy


This week brought the unhappy news that Massachusetts senator Edward Moore Kennedy has been diagnosed with a malignant tumor. The growth is located in the parietal lobe, that portion of the brain responsible for some sensory perceptions — taste, touch, movement — and for both the reception and expression of speech, and for math and reading comprehension. One might say the tumor is literally at “the heart” of the brain; it is creating trouble in the very area that allows one to not simply function but thrive as a unique individual in the world. Impulses there affect one’s ability to read a poem and perceive in it a meaning others miss, or to speak a perfect word of consolation to a world struck mute, or to feel a salty breeze lift the hair and — of a moment — find the past and present subsumed by an overwhelming sense of Eternity.

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In the intellectual tensions that exist between secular and religious culture, there is endless debate over whether humanity operates by a simple firing of the synapses or the elaborate fires of the soul. Either perspective must call out from us an appreciation of the fact that Senator Kennedy and his family are entering a white-hot crucible. They will endure it; with God’s grace, the love of friends, and the prayers of countless others, the family may emerge from the ordeal knowing a great deal more than they know today — about themselves, and the mysteries of love and pain, forgiveness and faith.
They will not be the only ones. Many people of faith — myself included — were disagreeably surprised by their own reactions to the news; as the Kennedy family walks a difficult path to its inevitable conclusion, we who make up the Body of Christ may be walking a parallel path and learning a great deal more than we know today — about ourselves, and all the rest of it.
Stories of Ted Kennedy’s non-partisan kindnesses toward his congressional colleagues are well-documented, and anecdotes abound on his willingness to press an acquaintance for the benefit of a child in dire straits. But the quiet altruism of a public man is always overshadowed by the noise of his sins. In Kennedy’s case, those raucous sins — added to a life-narrative littered with images of violent, tragic deaths, reckless behavior, and rough politics — initially made inner voices of compassion difficult to hear. While taking no glee in Kennedy’s diagnosis, some still found their normally generous instincts stifled by dislike, or so discomforted by his pro-abortion positions as to withhold natural expressions of empathy, for fear of giving the impression of political support.
The nimbus of Catholic piety surrounding nearly a century’s worth of Kennedy highs and lows gives anti-Catholic bigots a satisfying sense of superiority, and some Catholics a scathing sense of scandal. The Kennedys are a gifted, public-minded clan of great wealth and privilege, whose shenanigans, some feel, have served more to shame than showcase the sanctity of the Catholic family or the great, full-hearted, and consoling wisdom of the Catholic faith. There is a feeling that the tribe has been betrayed, and therefore resentment, too, has blocked prayer, or limited it to general good wishes for the family, and rather neutral feelings for the man.
One could argue, however, that the Kennedy Saga, in all its triumph and trouble, presents Catholicism to the world in all of its messy imperfections and abundant mercies. While we might wish for public Catholics to live lives of such transparent holiness as to edify a nation and promote Catholicism as a showcase of saintliness, they too often instead reveal the Church as the hospital for sinners in chronic need, who are never turned away.
The Kennedys are neither holier nor more wicked than other families, but where most of us commit and repent of our mortifying sins in relative obscurity, the veil of privacy granted to them is excruciatingly diaphanous; it tempts others to presume knowledge of the state of souls, and since the days of public penances are long past, there is further temptation to assume an arrogance that may or may not exist. Is it arrogance and entitlement that keeps a public man of public failings turning, and turning again, to the Mass, the sacraments, and the tribe, or is it a kind of humility, a declaration of need that supersedes riches and power and all the consolations of the world?
Ted Kennedy belongs to his family, to the Catholic Church, and — as representative of the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts — to the United States of America. But before he belonged to any of those, he belonged to God, and it is to God he eventually stands. If we knew nothing of him beyond that one unalterable fact, it would be enough to warrant our heartfelt prayers on his behalf. With all we do (and do not) know of God’s Ted Kennedy — and all we know of ourselves, of our own sins, our humiliations and triumphs, our public moments of indiscretion and our private agonies — our  instincts to prayer should not stumble before the shame of another, or we shame ourselves.
The crucible is a melting pot in which materials of varying grades and purities are rendered into something fiery and fluid that can be poured, molded, cured, and formed. As the Kennedy family is consumed by its heat, some of us may want to pick carefully through our own embers with a good old-fashioned examination of conscience, to recognize “what we have done, and what we have failed to do.” Because sooner or later, it will be our turn in the crucible, and our own beams and splinters will feed it.


  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Elizabeth Scalia is the popular writer and blogger known as “The Anchoress.” She writes a weekly column for First Things and is the managing editor for the Catholic Portal at Patheos.

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