There really isn’t any question about the facts that belonged at the top of the obituaries for Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 2009 and, now, those noting the passing of her charismatic husband R. Sargent Shriver.
For Shriver the headline accomplishment is clear — the Peace Corps (and several other respected, ongoing programs to help the poor and needy). For his wife, she will always be remembered for, among other accomplishments, founding the Special Olympics.
All of this work was, for them, tightly connected to their dedication to public service and, of course, their articulate and very traditional Catholic faith. They were part of the Camelot universe, but many of their convictions set them apart from others in their Kennedy generation.
How to handle this? New York Times columnist Ross Douthat went straight to the heart of the matter in 2009, at the time of Ted Kennedy’s death, 13 days after the passing of his sister, Eunice.
What the siblings shared — in addition to the grace, rare among Kennedys, of a ripe old age and a peaceful death — was a passionate liberalism and an abiding Roman Catholic faith. These two commitments were intertwined: Ted Kennedy’s tireless efforts on issues like health care, education and immigration were explicitly rooted in Catholic social teaching, and so was his sister’s lifelong labor on behalf of the physically and mentally impaired.
What separated them was abortion.
Along with her husband, Sargent Shriver, Eunice belonged to America’s dwindling population of outspoken pro-life liberals. Like her church, she saw a continuity, rather than a contradiction, between championing the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed and protecting unborn human life.
Which brings us to a fact that I did not expect to find in today’s reports and, sure enough, I was right.
It is safe to say that, pending an act of God, Sargent Shriver may have been the last Democrat who will ever get to run for national office — he was the 1972 Democratic vice presidential nominee — as an unabashed pro-lifer whose claim to that label was unchallenged by liberals and conservatives in the pro-life movement. Reporters, do you see anyone who fits that description on the horizon?
I thought there was an outside chance that some mainstream news publication might have mentioned this and, perhaps, even have quoted that blunt document — “A New American Compact: Caring about Women, Caring for the Unborn” — that was printed in the Times during the 1992 Democratic National Convention. It ended with the signatures of some prominent members of the party and two names jumped out of the pack — Kennedy and Shriver. “Sarge” and Eunice both signed the compact.
As I noted in a Scripps Howard column about Eunice Shriver, that document said, in part:
“The advocates of abortion on demand falsely assume two things: that women must suffer if the lives of unborn children are legally protected; and that women can only attain equality by having the legal option of destroying their innocent offspring in the womb,” proclaimed ad’s lengthy and detailed text.
“We propose a new understanding, one that does not pit mother against child. To establish justice and to promote the general welfare, America does not need the abortion license. What America needs are policies that responsibly protect and advance the interest of mothers AND their children, both before AND after birth.”
Near the end, the statement added: “We can choose to reaffirm our respect for human life. We can choose to extend once again the mantle of protection to all members of the human family, including the unborn.”
As for the obituaries for Sargent Shriver, there are few differences in the major newspapers. However, if you are looking for more information about his political career and his relations with the top Kennedys, you can turn to the Times here and then click here for the Washington Post.
If you are interested in a few facts and comments about this tireless humanitarian’s faith, I would suggest that you check out the Baltimore Sun version of the obituary from the Los Angeles Times. The Shriver family had deep roots in Maryland and Sargent Shriver died at a hospital in Bethesda, Md.
The key question, of course, is this: What role did Catholicism play in his life, as in public life and private life? I would argue that, just like his wife, the causes for which he toiled were directly linked to the content of his faith. Thus, we read:
Along with boundless energy and a commitment to those in need, Shriver was known for his relentless optimism. He also was a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily, carried a well-worn rosary and made no secret of his abiding faith.
His dedication to public service was matched only by his devotion to his family. Shriver spent seven years courting Eunice Mary Kennedy before she married him in 1953. They had been married for 56 years when she died at 88 in 2009. Each of their five children followed their parents’ example in pursuing public endeavors. Timothy Shriver, one of their four sons, said his father taught them “to locate our deepest aspirations in the public sphere.”
In conclusion, let me note that there was this rather interesting — and for me frustrating — passage near the end of this piece.
Please pay special attention to the first paragraph:
Although he was a man of deep faith, Shriver was also a supreme rationalist, said the Rev. Bryan Hehir, a Catholic priest and longtime friend.
“He was convinced that you could solve anything if you thought about it long enough,” said Hehir, a professor of religion and public life at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “He thought the human mind was made to conquer the Earth, and anybody who doubted that, he really didn’t want to have anything to do with.”
Luckily, Shriver found ample companionship. … He found allies on the ski slopes, in churches and in coffee shops. He drafted them into his schemes for social change simply by asking for their help.
Don’t you just love the choice of the word “although” at the start of that? Even though he was a “man of deep faith,” Shriver was also a “supreme rationalist.” I wonder if the priest contrasted those two facts in precisely that way. I have my doubts.