I can’t say that I always loved Ted Kennedy. For years, I have agreed with the
issues he fought for–especially regarding his concern for the sick, the poor,
and the elderly. But, I confess,
Senator Kennedy’s personal behavior often proved embarrassing and sometimes
appalling to those who agreed with his policies. Like all three Kennedy brothers, there has been a
disconcerting tension between the public servant and the private self.
When I was a bit younger–and much more theologically
puritanical–I thought that private behavior diminished public good. That the inner and outer selves
must be connected for acts of goodness to have real integrity and social
impact. The death of Senator
Kennedy, however, points to a richer tradition of Christian theology, indeed of
Catholic theology: Even a sinful
leader may accomplish God’s will for the public good. Personal perfection is not a prerequisite for ruling well.
That, of course, is profoundly good news. The Christian tradition has
insisted–since about the fourth century or so–that human sinfulness in no way
diminishes acts of grace, mercy, and justice. But it is also not an excuse to continue sinning. Indeed, some public figures seem to
think that their position is license to do what they like in private, as long
as they continue to serve the people in their work. “Should we sin,” the Apostle Paul once wrote, “that grace
may abound?” No, the church has
responded. We will sin, and flawed
humans will continue to do the good. But Christian spirituality insists that if one is
truly on a journey of faith, that goodness will eventually overtake weakness
and the inner life and outward service will come into harmony. Life is a progress toward such harmony,
the symphony of faith in God.
Ted Kennedy’s theological legacy may well be the
demonstration of the progressive harmony of goodness. For, unlike his brothers who did not live long enough to
complete the journey of faith, Ted Kennedy did. In recent years, he admirably and publicly overcame a host
of private demons and became the kind of leader who walked his talk. The tributes of family, friends, and
foes increasingly praised his kindness, wisdom, and authenticity–all marks of
Christian maturity. His outer
passion for the “least of these” aligned with the inner life.
And, in the end, Ted Kennedy died well. Through long months of preparation and
witness–a gift never given to his brothers–he met God. He believed in progressive causes. But, more importantly, he showed us
that all of life is spiritual progress–a journey of hands and heart–toward the
One who loves the poor. Even a
rich man can get to heaven. Well
done, good and faithful servant.