Volume > Issue > A Kennedy’s Clarion Call to Catholic Dissidence

A Kennedy’s Clarion Call to Catholic Dissidence

Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Are Mixing God with Politics and Losing Their Way

By Kathleen Kennedy Town­send

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Pages: 224 pages

Price: $24.99

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

Catholic dissidents tend to be mentally frozen in the decade of their rebellion against the Church. This phenomenon can be seen in the person of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who has turned into a virtual pillar of salt by gazing back at the sexual revolution of the 1970s. In this, her first book, the eldest daughter of Robert Kennedy claims that the Church “betrayed” her generation and went into “decline” by failing to change its teach­ings about contraception, abortion, and sodomy.

Townsend, who is on the board of the National Catholic Reporter, says her faith taught her “humility about one’s own righteousness” and the humility to know there is “always more to learn.” This is odd because there’s not a trace of humility to be found in her entire book. She’s unflinchingly self-righteous in her support of abortion. Another oddity is her claim that “moral discomfort” is one of the “most important things about Catholic life.” Yet she’s perfectly comfortable with the violent deaths of 50 million American babies surgically ripped from the womb since 1973. Like Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, Townsend comes from a very large family but strongly opposes “massive” families. She supports social programs for the poor, but defends the abortion juggernaut that targets the poor for elimination before they can be born. She uses terms like broad, expansive, and inclusive to describe the morality she approves of, and narrow for Church teachings. But she herself is narrow in her application of terms like justice, mercy, neighbor, and the least of these — all of which she obstinately refuses to extend to babies in the womb.

Townsend has long been defining sin for herself. As a young woman she made up her mind that sexual intercourse didn’t have “to wait till marriage,” provided she found the man she wanted to marry. She decided that what the Church condemns as fornication was something good that might determine “if we were compatible. Luckily for me we were.”

In 1974, when she was a senior in college, her close friend became pregnant out of wedlock and aborted her child. Far from trying to dissuade her, Townsend wrote a research paper on abortion to justify that decision. After all, her friend was a “good person” who “cared deeply about her family” and was eager “to devote much of her life’s work to helping those least able to help themselves.” Note how narrowly Townsend applies the terms family and those least able to help themselves to exclude the baby in the womb. She claims she was torn between “my love for my friend” and “the teachings of the Church that would condemn her as one of the world’s worst sinners.” In this remark she caricatures a merciful Church as ruthless. In her paper Townsend reached the following conclusion: “My friend’s experience — the awful position she was in — made me look at the moral questions anew, and the reason for the Church’s adamant, unforgiving, un-nuanced doctrine. It also made me realize that ‘pro-choice’ was not the best slogan. I prefer ‘pro-conscience,’ for that clarifies that women make moral decisions.” Note that she defended her friend as having aborted her child not out of fear and shame, but on the basis of a “moral decision,” as an act of “conscience.”

The Church offers forgiveness to the worst of sinners provided they repent, but Townsend declared that there was no need for her friend to repent — because abortion, like fornication, is something good. Thus, since her teen years this woman has been calling herself a Catholic but making up her own religion as she goes along.

To justify her brazen disobedience in spiritual matters, Townsend in the 1970s cast all the blame on the Church: “Never in my youth had I seen Catholics stand up to their priests or to Vatican edicts the way I and so many other Catholics felt forced to do by the illogic and inhumanity of the Church’s sexual declarations.” Note her expression forced to. She can’t be blamed or expected to repent, you see, because it was the illogic and inhumanity of the Church that forced her and other dissidents to rebel. From that point on, her contempt for the spiritual authority of the Church just kept growing. Soon feminism made her regard Catholic morality as emanating from “celibate” men who don’t know “the joy of sex,” who are interested only in their “power,” and who can’t see that Catholics who had participated in the “liberations of the feminist and sexual revolutions” would never again obey “a Church that seemed so reactionary.”

So, why hasn’t Townsend left the Catholic Church? She sticks to it like a burr because, she says, “I am a Catholic in the way that I am a member of my family or an American. Just as my family raised me, shaped me, taught me, provided me with a sense of rootedness, so has Catholicism.” Thus the Church is for her an umbilical cord she can’t quite cut off. Her self-made Catholicism, which never requires any docility to Church teachings on morality, is chiefly a form of therapy for dealing “with tragedy, with sadness, sorrow, and the forces of evil.” She attacks a “privatized” Catholicism all the way through her book — by which she means a Catholicism that meddles in sexual matters — yet hers is the most privatized religion of all, because it’s self-made and merely therapeutic. Another reason she remains a Catholic is because she’s certain that at the “appropriate time” the Church will “reawaken to the promise of Vatican II.” In her total lack of humility, she expects that the Church will finally repent and come round to her view of contraception and abortion. She can’t imagine that she might be the one who needs to repent. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Up to 1986 Townsend’s apostasy was private, but that year she ran for Congress on an abortion-rights platform. She laments that at the time, “My own pastor criticized me from the pulpit,” and the Church “attacked me, tried to isolate me, and generally tried to make me feel unwelcome.” She calls these wholesome rebukes personal attacks, and claims she suffered them because she was a Kennedy, a member of America’s most prominent Catholic family. Although her archdiocese “blacklisted” her as a speaker, she spoke at Catholic events anyway and on those occasions would be greeted by protesters who’d ask her, “How can you call yourself a Catholic?” At first, she says, she felt as if attacked by members of her own family, but as the years passed, she hardened her heart and stopped taking “the Church’s attacks personally.”

She complains that this treatment continued even after she left office, as when there were protests about her speaking to a graduating class at her old school in Maryland in 2003. At this juncture she was “saddened” that the protesters’ “view of the Church’s teachings was so narrow.” Although she unashamedly “disagreed with the Church on abortion rights,” she has the audacity to claim that “the idea that each soul was precious, that every person was indispensable in the sight of God, stood at the heart of everything I tried to do.” Note that she calls her opponents narrow, but she flatly refuses to be broad enough in her application of the concept of each precious soul to include babies in the womb. She complains that “my Catholic Church” has allowed its social-justice agenda to be “trumped by an all-consuming focus on contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem cell research — none of which are mentioned in the Gospels.” But she herself has an all-consuming focus on “abortion rights” and pretends that protecting the lives of babies has nothing to do with social justice.

Sandra Schneiders, a nun and professor of theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, commiserates with Townsend, who cites her as saying, “Where in the Scriptures do we find anything about abortion?” This is astonishing! What kind of doctor of Catholic theology is Schneiders if she’s ignorant of St. Luke’s account of the Visitation and of the fact that our Church’s moral teachings are not based entirely on the letter of Scripture? Are natural law, Church fathers, councils, and encyclicals unknown to her?

Townsend assures us that if the Church continues to condemn abortion today, it’s only to protect its claim to infallibility: The issue is “simply too high profile for the Church to brook dissent,” because for the Church to admit to error amounts to saying its word is “not the absolute reflection of the will of God,” and then its “authority” vanishes. Townsend would be happy if the Church at least conceded that abortion is a “deeply complicated” issue on which “good Catholics” can “disagree.” (Not a chance!) But if no concession is forthcoming, Town­send wants American Catholics to ignore the Church on abortion as they have on contraception, for “that’s when the Vatican’s hierarchy truly collapses.” Townsend forgets, of course, that our Savior solemnly promised that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against His Bride, the Church.

In case the Church will not change its teachings to suit Town­send, this paragon of humility declares that power reverts into “the hands of individual worshipers.” She summons Catholics “to reclaim our churches,” for after all, “Jesus did not follow the rules.” And she praises Voice of the Faithful for using the recent scandals (which she unfailingly calls “pederasty” scandals, rather than more accurately “homosexual” scandals) as a weapon “to open up Church governance to the laity.” Townsend then proposes that Catholics set up new altars: “If we call on the Church’s leadership to reform from within and it refuses to budge, we can form Eucharistic communities that keep alive the idea that women can be priests, that men might someday be allowed to remain priests when they are married.” Her “reformed” Church, she crows, won’t be “troubled” by issues like same-sex marriage. So, you see, when Townsend dreams of leaving the Kingdom of God, she wants to do it in style, like Lucifer, taking legions along with her.

Let me underline this reference to Lucifer. Abortion is atheism in action, so to endorse and promote it publicly as Townsend does amounts to waging war against God Himself.

Here is a book which, except for the personal reminiscences, is a rambling collection of prefabricated thoughts and phrases. Yet it serves a purpose in that it offers a striking example of how frozen in time and how void of moral seriousness are the Catholic dissidents of the 1970s.

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