Lessons To Be LearnedFATHER ROGER J. LANDRY
The funeral rites of Senator Edward Kennedy generated a lot of controversy.
Cardinal Sean O'Malley, in an entry on his weekly blog, told us very clearly why: "Needless to say, the Senator's wake and Catholic funeral were controversial because of the fact that he did not publicly support Catholic teaching and advocacy on behalf of the unborn." Because of the palpable disconnect between Senator Kennedy's Catholic faith and his very public championing of abortion, there were, predictably, many issues raised that are relevant more than to just one funeral. That's why it's worthwhile to ask what we have learned from the funeral and the controversies it engendered.
The first controversy was about whether Senator Kennedy should have even been allowed a Catholic funeral. There were many pro-lifers, locally and nationally, who thought that he should have been refused the Church's burial rites. Some argued that the discipline of the Church's canon law -- "manifest sinners for whom ecclesiastical funeral rites cannot be granted without public scandal to the faithful" (canon 1184) -- applied to him. They contended that he was a "manifest sinner" who obstinately persevered in at least formal cooperation in the sin of abortion, with no sign of repentance, until death. They also asserted that his funeral would cause public scandal to the faithful, leading others to the sinful conclusion that one can be a faithful Catholic and still support the destruction of innocent human life in the womb.
Even conceding their plausible interpretations of the above, there is a clear exception given in the same canon: "unless they have given some signs of repentance before their death." The Church interprets this clause generously, and Senator Kennedy's repeated calls for local clergy to come to his home over the last months of his illness, not to mention his letter to Pope Benedict in which he expressed regret for having been "an imperfect human being" and for "having fallen short through human failings," certainly seem to meet that criterion. While his confessor may be the only one who knows whether Senator Kennedy repented specifically of his abortion advocacy and received absolution for it, it's inarguable that he showed "some" signs of repentance. Therefore, he should have been allowed a Catholic funeral. This was, by the way, the position of the majority of Catholic pro-lifers, who were not seeking to deny him a funeral, but just to have his deplorable support for the destruction of the unborn not ignored in the way his funeral would be celebrated.
One of the things that seemed to motivate those who sought to deny a funeral was a decades long frustration over the Senator's lack of conversion for his support of abortion and over what they view as the failure of the Church adequately to bring him and others to repentance; the funeral would be one last and dramatic chance to teach unambiguously what they believe should have been taught and done before. His funeral, however, was clearly not the occasion to make up for lost opportunities in the past. Cardinal O'Malley powerfully expressed in his blog that he disagreed "in the strongest terms" with the position of "those who objected, in some cases vociferously, to the Church's providing a Catholic funeral for the Senator." He added, "We are a people of faith and we believe in a loving and forgiving God from whom we seek mercy." Contrary to some modern misunderstandings, the Cardinal implies that a Catholic funeral is not an event held to honor the deceased, or to celebrate his life, but to pray for him, and to beg God to be merciful to him. The more we are aware of someone's failings, the more we should be motivated to pray. Otherwise we become no better than the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:1-32).
This brings us to the second controversy about the funeral from which we need to learn. There have been many, especially among those who thought highly of Senator Kennedy overall, who scolded as classless and un-Christian any post-mortem criticism of the Senator, even of his public actions. To do this, they said, was equivalent to casting the first stone (Jn 8:5); it violated the Biblical principle of not judging lest we be judged (Lk 6:37); and it was an affront to the dictum, which many erroneously think comes from the Bible, of never speaking ill of the dead. This controversy, however, flows from misconceptions of what Jesus and his Church actually teach.
To condemn one's actions is not necessarily -- and certainly not in this case -- to seek to put the person to death, in this life or in the next. Jesus, after all, did not excuse the actions of the woman caught in adultery, for which she could have been condemned under the law, but rather told her to go and sin no more.
To judge a person's external actions in the light of the Gospel, moreover, is not the same thing as judging the person, which is precisely and uniquely what Jesus forbids. It should also be noted that Jesus' prescription against judging means not just that we should never play the part of God and ascribe someone to hell, but also that we should never take on the role of God and pronounce someone in heaven, either. Catholic teaching is that, except in the rare cases of a deceased baptized infant or a canonized saint, we do not know in what state a departed loved one is after death. Yet many people who mistakenly rebuked those who criticized Senator Kennedy's abortion advocacy for supposedly judging the Senator's soul themselves thought nothing of judging the Senator's soul and deeming him in paradise. It is because we do not know the eschatological status of most of our loved one that we pray for them to the mercy of God -- and pray more the more we love, and the more we humbly admit that our loved one was a sinner, like us, in need of prayer.
With regard to the Latin expression de mortuis nihil nisi bonum -- "speak nothing but good about the dead" -- Fr. George Rutler clarified in an article last week that the reason why the pagans promoted this principle was because they knew of no way the evil of the dead could be absolved. "The noble pagan tried to make the best of a bad thing, urging a social convention born of pessimism. The mercy of God changes pessimism to hope, and hope is the engine of honesty. In obedience to the Divine Mercy, speaking well of the dead may sometimes require not speaking good of the dead." In other words, candidly speaking of the evil someone has done is sometimes, in the light of the redemption, the most merciful thing we can do, if it brings us and others to pray more for the deceased. Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, after all, would likely never have prayed insistently for their slain comrades unless they had discovered posthumously that they stolen pagan amulets (2 Macc 12:39-45). Fr. Rutler says that ultimately we should all remember Jesus' straightforward teaching to the rich young man, "There is no one good but God alone" (Mt 19:17), and behave accordingly.
This leads to the final controversy, the actual celebration of Senator Kennedy's rite of Christian burial, which in a sense unites the two previous ones. The overall tone of the funeral liturgy -- from the three eulogies, to the prayers of the faithful, to the homily, to the celebrity musicians, to the guest list, and to the nationally-televised gushing color commentaries -- seemed to communicate that it was more a public, political apotheosis of Senator Kennedy than a humble, insistent prayer of the Church his mother for the forgiveness of his sins and the repose of his soul. This was probably not helpful to the Senator eschatologically, obviously scandalous to devout pro-lifers spiritually, and likely injurious to the Church both doctrinally and practically.
On the last point, since lex orandi, lex credendi -- "the way we pray indicates what we believe" -- the overall impression left by the tone of the funeral will likely influence the way Catholics and non-Catholics understand the purpose of the Catholic funeral liturgy for quite some time. It will, moreover, doubtless impact what some Catholics ask for in the funerals of their loved ones; if pastors are unwilling to allow what they observed Senator Kennedy received, there will be wounds to pastors and parishioners both.
This last controversy was totally avoidable; all that was necessary was to adhere to the letter and spirit of the Catholic funeral rite. And the Senator, pro-lifers and the Church as a whole certainly deserved that the Senator's funeral be an unambiguous and undiluted expression of the Church's faith.
Father Roger J. Landry. "Lessons To Be Learned." The Anchor (September 18, 2009).
Excerpted by permission of Father Roger J. Landry.
THE AUTHORFather Roger J. Landry was ordained a Catholic priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts by Bishop Sean O'Malley, OFM Cap. in 1999. After receiving a biology degree from Harvard College, Fr. Landry studied for the priesthood in Maryland, Toronto, and for several years in Rome. After his priestly ordination, Father returned to Rome to complete graduate work in Moral Theology and Bioethics at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Rome. He speaks widely on the thought of Pope John Paul II and on apologetics, and is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua in New Bedford, MA and Executive Editor of The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River.
Copyright © 2009 Father Roger J. Landry
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