BISHOP TOBIN AND CONGRESSMAN PATRICK KENNEDY
Over the past week-end the media began to direct a great deal of attention to the issue of Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and the Bishop of Providence, Bishop Thomas Tobin. The matter became media fodder when the Congressman chose to reveal the contents of a strictly personal and confidential letter sent to him several years ago by Bishop Tobin following pastoral outreach and conversation between the two on Kennedy’s ardent pro-abortion position. In that letter the Bishop as Kennedy’s bishop asked him to refrain from the reception of the Eucharist unless and until he embraced Church teaching on abortion and pro-life issues.
A few months ago, the Congressman raised the ante in the relationship by being openly critical of the Catholic bishops of the U.S. for risking the defeat of health care which he described as a true pro-life issue for concerns about abortion and conscience freedom guarantees. He stopped just short of calling the Church leadership “anti-life.” Bishop Tobin responded as I would have responded – calling a misrepresentation of the Church’s teaching for what it is. He did not publish his previous request to Kennedy to refrain from receiving the Eucharist and said he had no intention of making it public nor did he instruct the priests of his diocese to deny Eucharist to him (an allegation Kennedy made in his week-end interview). In other words, Bishop Tobin pursued conversation over confrontation and tried, unsuccessfully it would seem, a pastoral approach in asking the Congressman not to continue to give scandal by presenting himself as a member of the Catholic communion for communion. I think this is exactly how I would choose to proceed if faced with the same set of circumstances as was Bishop Tobin.
In judging this situation, please keep the following in mind:
1. Abortion is a moral issue which admits of no compromise. It is taking innocent human life. It has been the teaching of the Church for many decades and perhaps centuries. Catholics who choose to be pro-choice do not embrace the teaching of their Church on this issue and at some point can be considered to have separated themselves from the Catholic communion.
2. The Catholic Church leadership in this country is strongly committed to expanding health care to the uninsured. While it may seem that our commitment here is less passionate than our opposition to abortion, that’s not how I and my brother bishops feel. Abortion as a moral issue trumps but does not vitiate our support for expanded coverage for the poor and uninsured.
3. The Church in making its case before the Congress is acting as Cardinal George, our President said last week, based on principle, not politics. It is allowed to do this under section 501.C.3 of the Internal Revenue Service Code. We would likely cross the line if we endorsed or opposed a candidate for political office, which we do not do. Many of our more ardent pro-life Catholics would like to see more of the latter but it will not happen.
4. Congressman Kennedy, for whatever reasons, chose to take on his bishop and his Church’s teaching in an unconscionable manner. The bishop has responded as both pastor and teacher. I admire his restraint and his strength.