Who deserves our respect?
Titus Brandsma was a small, gentle, bespectacled man. He spent years working with the Dutch underground movement to smuggle Jewish people out of the Netherlands and away from the threat of the Nazi murderers. As a monk, he rejected violence and so would not, could not, pick up a gun to use against the oppressors of goodness and all he held dear. But night after night, week after week, he struggled in his own way to do what had to be done.
Until he was caught. Until he was tortured, beaten, smashed and sentenced to death. As the Nazi nurse gave him a fatal injection, he looked up, gave the uniformed killer his Rosary beads and said, “I forgive you, I’ll pray for you.” Not far away, in Germany itself, a young Lutheran minister named Dietrich Bonhoeffer had returned to his homeland from abroad, even though he knew of the extreme danger.
Precisely because, in fact, he knew of the extreme danger. He joined the German resistance and worked without pause to bring down the regime of the Hitler gang. Like his comrade across the border in Holland, he was arrested and imprisoned. Unlike his Dutch brother, he was on one occasion presented with the chance to escape. He did not take it, aware that if he had done so, the Nazis would have arrested and murdered his entire family.
Bonhoeffer was executed at the age of 39. He died forgiving his captors and smiling in the certainty of his future.
The reason I write of these two men is that there has been a great deal of argument recently, some of it angry, about the funeral given to Ted Kennedy, a man who had endless opportunities to promote Catholic teaching on life, sexuality and family, yet voted repeatedly against what the church teaches and has always taught.
A man who acted at best extraordinarily irresponsibly and perhaps out of criminal intent when his driving led to the death of a powerless young woman. He may well have lied and had his friends and family do the same to escape anything more than a token punishment for what happened. Yet he never showed genuine and sufficient public contrition.
A man whose chronic adultery may well have forced his first wife into alcoholism. A man who, in late middle age, partied semi-naked with young relatives a third of his age – one such party leading to rape charges against one of his nephews.
Yet, he also championed the poor and did some fine work as a senator for education, healthcare and the disabled – as did and do many other American politicians, Republican as well as Democrat. He was, as we all are, a flawed man with abilities and skills as well as faults and blemishes. We have no idea what he said and did in his final days and whether he made peace with God and the Roman Catholic church. But we do know he at no time tried to repair the public damage he had done over the decades to the fight for the unborn and the campaign to preserve genuine marriage.
His funeral was royal. And herein is the problem. All nations require reverence and, if they do not have an established royal family, they mould one out of what they can. In Canada, the Trudeau clan enjoys minor royal celebrity and, in the United States, the Kennedy family, particularly because of the tragic assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy, have long been treated as something beyond and above the daily banality of American life.
President John Kennedy was a poor leader and a weak man. His father, the founder of the dynasty, was a bootlegger, a Nazi sympathizer, a philanderer and someone who bought elections and hijacked truth. Just like, I suppose, so many British royals who were base and hollow.
Little of this should have any influence on what we think of Ted Kennedy, but nor should the family glamour have any influence on how Christians and supporters of life judge him. As a Catholic, I have cringed at some of the clerical and episcopal fawning around the Kennedy cult and thought that the funeral, with prayers being exploited for crass party politics, vulgar and shameful.
In the wider context of the fate of the unborn, I find it difficult to understand why those who claim to seriously grapple for the most vulnerable could be so forgiving of a man who never asked forgiveness for his abandoning of babies in the womb; so loving towards a man who exhibited so little love for those who silently scream every moment of every day.
I’ll stick with Brandsma and Bonhoeffer. My integrity and my soul are safer that way.
Michael Coren’s new book, As I See It, is available at amazon.ca. He can be booked for speaking events at www.michaelcoren.com.