Shriver and God's big family

If someone truly wants to understand R. Sargent Shriver, all they need to do is reflect on his last public appearance three months before his death at age 95. Although weakened by his long struggle with Alzheimer's disease, the founder of the Peace Corps and other projects for the needy attended the first Archdiocese of Washington "White Mass" for children and adults with disabilities. One last time, he stood with those touched by the Special Olympics and the work of his wife, the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

"Sarge's knowledge of God's love ... was the structure that supported his public life. From this faith, hope and love flowed his thirst for justice and peace and the courage to speak for those who had no voice," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, at Shriver's funeral Mass last week in Potomac, Md. "He spoke not from political expediency or correctness, but from an abiding sense of conviction."

The statesman's life was shaped by many of the 20th century's most powerful forces, from the Great Depression in his childhood to World War II combat at Guadalcanal. His marriage took him deep into the Kennedy family, which launched his work, yet limited his political career.

Shriver took on global poverty for his brother-in-law, President John F. Kennedy, and helped lead the domestic War on Poverty for President Lyndon Johnson. Many of the projects he helped launch live on -- such as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Legal Services, Foster Grandparents and Upward Bound.

Those who worked with Shriver, noted former President Bill Clinton at the funeral, were left asking this question: "Could anybody be as good as he seemed to be? Come on now. ... Every other man in this church feels about two inches tall right now."

Where did Shriver's drive come from? Son Mark Shriver stressed that his father's motivations were never strictly political, but were rooted in the first item on the daily calendar of his life. Wherever he went, whether with family or on business, the first question he asked upon arrival was the time and location of the nearest morning Mass. The Shriver patriarch was buried with his rosary in his fingers.

"Daddy was joyful 'til the day he died and I think that joy was deeply rooted in his love affair with God," said Mark Shriver. "Daddy loved God and God loved him right back. ... Daddy let go. God was in control and, oh, what a relationship they had."

While his Catholicism helped Shriver as an activist and volunteer, it marginalized him in some politic circles. As the years passed, son Timothy Shriver said he could see that his father's commitments made many people uncomfortable. At times, his faith "made him an outlier. He was too public with all of that spirituality."

In 1972, Shriver stepped in and became his party's emergency choice as Sen. George McGovern's running mate in a long-shot run race for the White House. It helped that Shriver was a political progressive and a traditional Catholic. Still, there hasn't been another pro-life Democrat on the national ticket since Shriver.

During the 1992 Democratic National Convention, both Sargent and Eunice Shriver joined several other prominent Democrats in signing a public document that openly rejected their party's stance on abortion.

"To establish justice and to promote the general welfare, America does not need the abortion license," it stated. "What America needs are policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers AND their children, both before AND after birth. ... We can choose to extend once again the mantle of protection to all members of the human family, including the unborn."

Thus, Shriver's human family included the unborn and the mentally handicapped, AIDS patients in Africa and the urban poor, abandoned children and the elderly who need medical care.

"No one can deny that his liberal Catholicism was a Christian politics: Admirable, comprehensive, and at the test, consistent," noted Catholic writer Ross Douthat, an op-ed columnist and blogger for the New York Times.

"That test was abortion, where Shriver was one of the few Great Society liberals to remain a pro-life liberal as well. ... Together with his wife, Eunice, he endured as the embodiment of a liberal road not taken on that issue. For that, as for everything he did in public life, he will be sorely missed."

Rites, wrongs and Ted Kennedy

In the summer of 2004, the Vatican sent a letter to the United States addressing one of the hottest issues facing the church here -- whether politicians who back abortion rights should receive Holy Communion. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent the guidelines to the leader of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. However, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick chose not to share the letter with America's bishops, which kept its blunt contents secret -- until a leak in Italy.

"The Church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin," warned the letter, adding that there is a "grave and clear obligation to oppose" civil laws and judicial decisions that "authorize or promote" these acts. At the same time, it explained that there "may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not ... with regard to abortion and euthanasia."

On the central issue, the guidelines said when a person's "formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church's teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist."

Months later, the letter's author -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- became Pope Benedict XVI. There is no evidence his views have changed.

However, the status of politicians who clash with Rome remains controversial, especially when Catholics occupy strategic positions on the U.S. Supreme Court, in the president's cabinet and on Capital Hill.

Tensions from the Ratzinger letter were also felt during the public events marking the passing of Sen. Edward Kennedy, one of the most symbolic and influential Catholics in American political history.

Catholics on both sides of the aisle dissected the rites, seeking signs of favor or disfavor. The outspoken Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston presided in the funeral Mass, but played a small role. Was that important? Where were the region's other bishops? Were television crews told to avoid camera angles that would reveal who received Communion?

But the most symbolic moment occurred during the graveside service in Arlington National Cemetery. That's when the now retired Cardinal McCarrick -- a close friend of Kennedy -- read the dying senator's private appeal for a final papal blessing.

"I know that I have been an imperfect human being, but with the help of my faith, I have tried to right my path," wrote Kennedy. "I want you to know, Your Holiness, that in my nearly 50 years of elective office, I have done my best to champion the rights of the poor and open doors of economic opportunity. I've worked to welcome the immigrant, fight discrimination and expand access to health care and education. I have opposed the death penalty and fought to end war. ...

"I have always tried to be a faithful Catholic, Your Holiness, and though I have fallen short through human failings, I have never failed to believe and respect the fundamental teachings."

McCarrick read excerpts from a Vatican reply, keeping some parts private. The final lines, written by a papal aide, were simple: "Commending you and the members of your family to the loving intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Holy Father cordially imparts his Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of wisdom, comfort and strength in the Lord."

Kennedy's letter raised a familiar and haunting question: Are the Catholic doctrines on the sanctity of every human life, from conception to natural death, part of the church's "fundamental teachings" or not?

While praising the senator's career, McCarrick added what was almost certainly a gentle reference to his clashes with the church on abortion, gay rights and other doctrinal issues. The bottom line: Kennedy maintained a 100 percent pro-abortion-rights voting record, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

"They called him, 'The Lion of the Senate,' and indeed that is what he was," said the former shepherd of the Washington archdiocese. "His roar, and his zeal for what he believed, made a difference in our nation's life. Sometimes, of course, we who were his friends and had affection for him would get mad at him when he roared at what we believed was the wrong side of an issue."