O’Malley defends role at Kennedy rites

Cardinal urges civility over abortion issue

President Obama talked with Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley during Edward M. Kennedy's funeral. President Obama talked with Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley during Edward M. Kennedy's funeral. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / September 3, 2009

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Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley last night issued a forceful defense of his decision to participate in the funeral of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, an appearance that has drawn sharp criticism from some conservative Catholics because of Kennedy’s ardent support for abortion rights.

O’Malley, writing in his blog, also revealed the substance of a conversation he had with President Obama near the altar of the Mission Church as the congregation assembled for Saturday’s funeral. He said he told Obama that the Catholic bishops are “anxious to support a plan for universal health care, but we will not support a plan that will include a provision for abortion or could open the way to abortions in the future.’’

But the most impassioned part of the cardinal’s blog post - which is at times folksy, at times cerebral, and punctuated by snapshots of the memorial events - is a de facto plea for greater civility among Catholics when discussing divisive issues. He warned against “harsh judgments’’ and attributing “the worst motives’’ to people with whom Catholics have disagreements, saying “these atti tudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church.’’

“If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness,’’ he added, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure.’’

And to those who argued that Kennedy did not merit a Catholic funeral because of his support for abortion rights, the cardinal wrote: “In the strongest terms I disagree with that position.’’

“We will stop the practice of abortion by changing the law, and we will be successful in changing the law if we change people’s hearts,’’ he wrote. “We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss.’’

The statement, and O’Malley’s handling of the Kennedy death, seems likely to be a defining moment for the cardinal, who has been archbishop of Boston for six years.

He is a fierce opponent of abortion, has been strongly critical of Obama’s support for abortion rights, and has questioned how Catholics can vote for politicians who support abortion rights.

But he has also refused to join the handful of bishops who would deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, and with his statement last night he makes it clear that he believes the tone of the debate needs to change.

“Our ability to change people’s hearts and help them to grasp the dignity of each and every life, from the first moment of conception to the last moment of natural death, is directly related to our ability to increase love and unity in the church, for our proclamation of the truth is hindered when we are divided and fighting with each other,’’ he wrote.

The cardinal’s statement comes after criticism, in the form of hundreds of phone calls and e-mails to the archdiocesan headquarters and comments by bloggers and some antiabortion organizations taking the cardinal to task for participating in the Kennedy funeral. An archdiocesan spokesman said most of the complaints have come from out of state.

But the archdiocese said O’Malley is also being praised by multiple Catholics for his willingness to preside over the funeral. And clearly many Catholics were moved by Kennedy’s death - in Massachusetts, one of the most Catholic states in the nation, 50,000 people stood in line to mourn the senator, and his funeral was widely watched on television.

O’Malley’s spokesman said the cardinal decided to speak up because he wanted “to articulate, to teach and communicate with the wider Catholic community following such a significant moment in our local church and nation.’’

O’Malley is not the only church official who stepped forward to pray for Kennedy. The bishops of Worcester and Fall River issued prayerful statements upon Kennedy’s death; Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, presided over the burial service at Arlington National Cemetery; and Pope Benedict XVI, after receiving a letter from the ailing Kennedy asking for prayers, responded with a note assuring the senator of his “spiritual closeness’’ and bestowing on him an “apostolic blessing.’’

O’Malley said he regretted Kennedy’s support for abortion rights. But O’Malley said he wanted to be at the funeral because “As archbishop of Boston, I considered it appropriate to represent the church at this liturgy out of respect for the senator, his family, those who attended the Mass and all those who were praying for the senator and his family at this difficult time. We are people of faith and we believe in a loving and forgiving God from whom we seek mercy.’’

The Kennedy funeral has sparked a debate among Catholic opinion leaders and writers about how the church should have responded to the death of a man who was a member of the most prominent Catholic family in American history and a champion of many elements of Catholic social teaching but also a leading supporter of abortion rights. Kennedy has also been criticized by Catholics because of his support for gay rights, and his divorce and remarriage.

Raymond Arroyo, news director at Eternal Word Television Network, was among the sharpest critics.

In his blog, he wrote: “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.’’

But there was also praise. The Rev. James Martin, an associate editor at America magazine, wrote, “Cardinal O’Malley’s decision to attend the funeral is large-hearted, compassionate, pastoral, sensitive and, above all, Christian.’’

Michael Paulson can be reached at