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Vicki Kennedy and Catholic McCarthyism

April 9, 2012, 10:43 am | Posted by John Gehring

Ted and Vicki KennedyIf it’s spring that means another round of commencement culture wars. The latest discouraging news is out of Massachusetts. A small Catholic college has been forced by Bishop Robert J. McManus of Worcester to withdraw a commencement invitation to Vicki Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, because of what the bishop describes as her association with “political and social organizations that promote activities and points of view that are contrary to fundamental church teachings.”

The Boston Globe reports.

Anna Maria College in Paxton, west of Worcester, released a statement…placing the decision at the feet of Bishop Robert J. McManus and saying it still believes Kennedy is an appropriate choice. However, the statement continued, “after hours of discerning and struggling with elements of all sides of this issue, the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees decided with deep regret to withdraw its invitation.

By all accounts, Kennedy takes her Catholic faith seriously and has been deeply engaged with social justice work on many issues. She has been honored by two Catholic colleges, spoke at the Catholic Charities USA centennial gathering in Washington two years ago and serves on the board of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, an organization of Catholic leaders devoted to promoting improved management of financial and human resources in the church.

But according to diocesan spokesman Raymond Delisle, Bishop McManus, who refused to meet with Kennedy to discuss the issues, appears to have a narrow focus for his decision.

From the National Catholic Reporter:

Delisle told NCR that McManus acted because of Kennedy’s “positions on pro-choice versus pro-life and the sanctity of marriage, his [the bishop's] defense of marriage between a man and a woman.”

“I don’t know what specific things he looked at,” Delisle added. “He just said to me those were the two areas that he talked to the president of the college about.”

Kennedy did write a 2004 Washington Post op-ed expressing concern about what she described as “the threatened denial of Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians,” a tactic also rejected by the vast majority of bishops. And at a private fundraising event two years ago Kennedy gave an introduction to a gay rights activist. But she has not been a leading public voice for either same-sex marriage or pro-choice organizations. She is also a board member of Catholic Democrats, a national organization representing a Catholic voice within the Democratic Party.

Her graceful reaction to Bishop McManus’ episcopal strong-arming surely resonates with many Catholics deeply troubled by a hierarchy where selective moral outrage over contraception and other divisive social issues threatens to drown out a broader Catholic social justice agenda.

I am a lifelong Catholic and my faith is very important to me. I am not a public official. I hold no public office, nor am I a candidate for public office. I have not met Bishop McManus nor has he been willing to meet with me to discuss his objections. He has not consulted with my pastor to learn more about me or my faith. Yet by objecting to my appearance at Anna Maria College, he has made a judgment about my worthiness as a Catholic. This is a sad day for me and an even sadder one for the church I love.

Sad, indeed. A vocal minority of Catholic bishops who selectively scold Catholic Democrats while giving a free pass to Catholic Republicans like Rep. Paul Ryan diminish their credibility as moral leaders and offer a distorted image of the Church’s witness in public life.

When is the last time you heard about a Catholic bishop singling out a conservative Catholic politician who defends the use of torture, the death penalty or pre-emptive war? No bishop raised an eyebrow when Catholics Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were demonizing the poor or when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a prominent Catholic, defended the use of the death penalty on Catholic moral grounds at Duquesne University. The selective outrage is hard to stomach even for many faithful Catholics who have served the Church, let alone a broader public less immersed in the specifics of Catholic theology.

The ugly tactics of censorship and guilt by association that defined the McCarthy era should have no place in a Church whose renowned universities aspire to educate students not only to defend orthodoxy, but to intellectually engage an increasingly diverse world.

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One Response to “Vicki Kennedy and Catholic McCarthyism”

  1. Julia says:

    In the prescriptive sense, I fully agree with this post. Yet I rather doubt it’s true that “no bishop raised an eyebrow” at the antics of Santorum and Gingrich and Scalia. It’s just that when they do, it doesn’t tend to get the same kind of press.