Commentary: Pro-Life Bishop’s Contention that Kennedy Funeral Was “Subdued” Confounds Many

Commentary by Patrick B. Craine and John-Henry Westen

MADISON, Wisconsin, September 8, 2009 ( - Bishop of Madison, Robert C. Morlino, expressed his support for the Kennedy funeral in a column last Thursday, basing his approval on the claim that the funeral was celebrated "in a subdued fashion," and that this "low key" approach was appropriate due to the Senator's support for abortion and other issues.

These comments come from a bishop who has become known as an ardent and courageous defender of life and marriage.  For example, at the end of 2007, Morlino broke from the neutral position of the Wisconsin bishops regarding a bill requiring Catholic hospitals to provide the morning-after pill.  In January 2007, he was behind the posting of pro-life billboards in Madison.  In November 2006, when he heard of priests in his diocese contradicting Church teaching on life and family, he ordered all the priests of his diocese to play at Masses a 14-minute homily on those issues that he had prepared.

In his recent column, after praising Kennedy's work for the poor and sick, criticizing his stances in support of abortion, homosexualism, and other issues (although seemingly downplaying those latter stances with the idea of the "seamless garment") Bishop Morlino arrives at the main point of his column.

"All of this is leading me up to the expression of my contentment with how our Church, in a subdued fashion, celebrated the Rites of Christian Burial for Senator Kennedy," he said. "The proclamation of God's Mercy was powerful, the prayer for forgiveness of his past sins was clearly offered, and all of this in a subdued way because of his long-standing and public holding of pro-abortion and other stances which have been a scandal in the literal sense."

A funeral that the Bishop calls "subdued," however, has been criticized specifically for being a "spectacle," featuring as it did numerous Church prelates and priests, a lengthy eulogy from President Obama, the presence of a number of other past U.S. presidents, and performances by world-renowned musicians, such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and tenor Placido Domingo.

Robert Royal of the Faith and Reason Institute has commented on the contention that the funeral was low key, noting that "some…see the small number of bishops and priests at the Mass as an indirect statement of some kind."  But, he says, "for the ordinary person ... the Cardinal [Sean O'Malley] was present and Placido Domingo sang Panis angelicus, just as if it were a papal Mass.  And Cardinal McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington ... said the graveside prayers."

Judie Brown of the American Life League said that "The entire travesty, from the television cameras to spectacle itself, goes beyond anything I have witnessed in my more than 65 years of life.  In fact, while we all thought the appearance of President Barack Obama at the University of Notre Dame was a scandal, the very idea that he offered a eulogy in a basilica, while the real presence of Christ was in the tabernacle, is perhaps the most dastardly thing I have ever seen."

Phil Lawler of called the funeral "a ceremony of public acclamation so grand and sweeping that it might, to the untutored observer, have seemed more like an informal canonization."  Further, he responded to rumors that Cardinal O'Malley had distanced the diocese from the event by not allowing it to happen in the cathedral or by his choice of vestments, saying, "If any such subtle message was intended, that message was not received by the American public, which saw the funeral as the most glorious send-off the Catholic Church can arrange."

David Warren, pressed by readers to respond to Kennedy's passing, said in a column last week, "I'd have been scandalized, and ashamed, had my Roman Church given him a Christian burial. In the event, the responsible bishops gave him all the pageantry they could supply, thereby further alienating themselves from the faithful laity."

EWTN's News Director Raymond Arroyo, further, highlighted on his blog the funeral's spectacle while deploring the scandal that resulted, saying, "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."

According to Bishop Morlino, the only part of the funeral that was not "subdued" was the guest list, which he explains by indicating that that is generally left up to the preference of the family.  And indeed, it is difficult to see how the presence of five U.S. presidents, the vice president, prominent politicians, and various celebrities would be viewed by anyone, no less the average citizen, as "subdued."

But the guest list, in fact, was viewed by prominent critics as a key area where Cardinal O'Malley should have exercised his authority in the days leading up to the funeral so as to avoid public scandal. Fr. Thomas Eutheneuer, president of Human Life International, stated on the Thursday before the funeral: "Senator Kennedy needs to be sent to the afterlife with a private, family-only funeral and the prayers of the Church for the salvation of his immortal soul."

Bishop Morlino continued, saying, "I'm afraid, however, that for not a few Catholics, the funeral rites for Senator Kennedy were a source of scandal - that is, quite literally, led them into sin," pointing specifically to some who rejoiced in the belief that Kennedy would have been sent to hell.  However, "From the earliest days of the Church it was defined as sinful to enjoy the thought that someone might be in Hell," explains the bishop.

Yet, while some Catholics certainly have been guilty of such wholly un-Christian positions, the most significant critics of the funeral almost uniformly advocated a private funeral, and emphasized the need to pray for the salvation of Kennedy in Christian hope.  In his article, Royal commented, "Some Catholics have argued Kennedy should have been denied Christian burial. That is wrong, even though he never publicly recanted a grave public sin. But could the Church have commended him to God in a way that paid respect to the 50 million aborted souls who were not here to watch the spectacle? She could have, and it's a tragedy for the Church and America that she did not."

The bishop goes on to proclaim the message of God's mercy, but then claims that the public funeral was offered in the spirit of true Christian mercy, which, it is implied, is lacking in those who opposed it.  "The death of Senator Kennedy has called forth at least an apparent rejection of mercy on the part of not a few Catholics," he says.  "Without denying any misdeeds on the part of Senator Kennedy, the Church, seeking to reflect the face of Christ, proclaimed God's mercy for the whole world to see in a subdued but unmistakable way. It was more than appropriate."

According to Raymond Arroyo, however, the "spectacle," rather than being about proclaiming "God's mercy for the whole world to see," as the Bishop says, was fundamentally about trivializing the defense of life.  "This entire spectacle - the Catholic funeral trappings and the wall to wall coverage - was only partially about Ted Kennedy," he says.  "It was truly about cementing the impression, indeed catechizing the faithful, that one can be a Catholic politician, and so long as you claim to care about the poor, you may licitly ignore the cause of life."

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