The letter was ostensibly private but a pol as savvy as Teddy surely knew it would be published after his death so he put his opportunity to good use. Nothing wrong with a man making a deathbed declaration in support of a cause he’s passionate about, but enlisting the Pope as an unwitting prop is something only a Kennedy could get away with. Like Harry Reid so poignantly and inimitably said of Teddy’s passing, “I think it’s going to help us.”

I also want you to know that even though I am ill, I’m committed to doing everything I can to achieve access to health care for everyone in my country. This has been the political cause of my life. I believe in a conscience protection for Catholics in the health field and I’ll continue to advocate for it as my colleagues in the Senate and I work to develop an overall national health policy that guarantees health care for everyone.

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 of my faith. I continue to pray for God’s blessings on you and on our church and would be most thankful for your prayers for me.

National policy wouldn’t be utmost in my mind if I had a chance to commune with the leader of my faith shortly before my death, but as a wayward nonbeliever, I’m happy to assume that’s my error. “Human failings” aside, though, how did Teddy square his pro-choice record with his claim to believe and respect “the fundamental teachings of my faith”? Is life no longer fundamental? Says Douthat, pondering the great What If of how the abortion wars would have played out had “the Lion” paid a little more attention to the Church:

At times, Ted Kennedy’s fervor on abortion felt like an extended apology to his party’s feminists for the way the men of his dynasty behaved in private…

It’s worth pondering how the politics of abortion might have been different had Ted shared even some of his sister’s qualms about the practice. One could imagine a world in which America’s leading liberal Catholic had found a way to make liberalism less absolutist on the issue, and a world where a man who became famous for reaching across the aisle had reached across, even occasionally, in search of compromise on the country’s most divisive issue.

That was not to be. And it’s entirely fitting, given his record, that Kennedy’s immediate legacy is a draft of health-care legislation that pursues an eminently Catholic goal — expanding access to medical care — through a system that seems likely, in its present design, to subsidize abortion.

I wouldn’t call it an “extended apology” as much as an attempt to purchase the silence of liberals over his private conduct, with damages for personal injuries to be paid in political capital instead of dollars. So effectively was that silence maintained, in fact, that at least one editor at a major feminist blog hadn’t heard of Chappaquiddick or the William Kennedy Smith rape case until this week.

Ah well. With any luck, Joe Kennedy will toss his hat in the ring and we’ll be guaranteed another four or five decades of Kennedy fun. If you’re keeping score at home, incidentally, the family has controlled Teddy’s Senate seat since Eisenhower’s first term. Fifty-six years. How many more to come?

Update: Time notes that the Vatican’s response to Kennedy’s letter was strikingly pro forma, quite in contrast to how they responded to Eunice Kennedy’s failing health:

Diplomatic protocol doesn’t require the Pope to respond to the death of a U.S. Senator, either privately or publicly. Still, prominent and well-regarded Catholics often get particular attention. Earlier in August, the day before she died, the family of Kennedy’s sister Eunice — who had advocated on behalf of the poor, the mentally handicapped and the unborn — received a letter directly from the nuncio saying the Pope was praying for her, her children and her husband. “These decisions [about how to react to deaths of public figures] ultimately depend on the Holy Father,” says the Vatican diplomat. “There’s no fixed rule.”