EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A month of harsh words between Rep. Patrick Kennedy and a strident critic, Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin, escalated Sunday when the bishop acknowledged asking Kennedy not to receive Holy Communion because of the Democratic lawmaker's support for abortion rights.
The bishop's attempt to publicly shame Kennedy comes just a few months after the death of his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. Tobin told The Associated Press in an interview Sunday that he's praying for the younger Kennedy, who has been in and out of treatment for substance abuse, and said Kennedy has been acting "erratically."
"He attacked the church, he attacked the position of the church on health care, on abortion, on funding," Tobin said. "And that required that I respond. I don't go out looking for these guys. I don't go out picking these fights."
Their dispute began in October when Kennedy criticized the nation's Catholic bishops for threatening to oppose an overhaul of the nation's health care system unless lawmakers included tighter restrictions on abortion, which have since been added to the House version of the bill. Tobin said he felt Kennedy made an unprovoked attack on the church and demanded an apology.
Since then, their feud has played out in public. Tobin, who has said he might have gone into politics were he not ordained, has written sharp public letters questioning Kennedy's faith and saying his position is scandalous and unacceptable to the church. Kennedy has said his disagreement with the church hierarchy does not make him any less of a Catholic.
Two weeks ago, after a planned meeting between the two fell through, Kennedy said he wanted to stop discussing his faith in public. But then he told The Providence Journal in a story published Sunday that Tobin instructed him not to receive Communion. He also claimed the bishop had told diocesan priests not to give him Communion. Kennedy and his spokespeople did not return repeated requests from the AP seeking comment.
Tobin said he wrote to Kennedy in February 2007 asking him not to receive Communion, but never formally banned Kennedy from receiving Communion or instructed any priest not to give it to him.
Kennedy said this month that he receives Communion, but he did not say whether his priest is in the Diocese of Providence. Tobin only has authority over priests in Rhode Island.
The bishop said he would probably not personally give Kennedy Communion and might have "a little conversation" with any priest who regularly gave Kennedy the sacrament.
Tobin said his 2007 request was prompted by a statement in December 2006 from the nation's Catholic bishops, which said believers who knowingly and consistently break with church teachings on moral issues such as abortion should refrain from Communion, a central focus of Roman Catholic worship.
Tobin would not say Sunday whether he had sent similar letters to other pro-choice Catholic politicians, including Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. Reed said in a statement that he respected Tobin's authority on matters of faith but added that "any discussions we've had are between the two of us."
In Rhode Island, the nation's most Catholic state, the monthlong drama has had a mixed reception from rank-and-file Catholics, who get far less scrutiny over their abortion views than Catholic politicians.
Angel Madera, 20, a Marine visiting his home in Providence for Thanksgiving, said before going to a Sunday Mass that Tobin was wrong in publicly assailing Kennedy's faith.
"If they believe they're a true Catholic, who's to say that they're not?" he said.
Several others, like 74-year-old Anne Mitchell said she supported Tobin's attempts to keep strong limits on publicly financed abortion, even though she believed Kennedy was right in saying the country needs health care reform.
"Abortion is wrong. It's always wrong," she said. "Keep abortion out of the bills."
Abortion is a major concern for the Catholic bishops because opposition to the procedure is based on the church's earliest teachings on preserving human life, which have not changed. By comparison, church teaching on the death penalty is not as definitive and has changed over time, making it difficult for church leaders to demand that Catholic lawmakers agree.
Only a few U.S. bishops have said they would outright deny Holy Communion to a Catholic lawmaker who supports policies that violate church teaching. A larger number of prelates have publicly asked a Catholic politician to voluntarily abstain from the sacrament.
For example, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas has repeatedly said that former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic Democrat who supports abortion rights, should stop taking Communion until she changes her stance. Sebelius is now President Barack Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services.
Other Catholic politicians have wrestled with the same issue Kennedy faces.
In 1984, former Democratic New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Catholic who supported abortion rights and was at the time a potential presidential candidate, delivered a speech at the University of Notre Dame explaining that Catholic lawmakers shouldn't be pressured by church leaders to work for anti-abortion legislation. He said Sunday it's dangerous for the church to pressure politicians because of the potential for unintended consequences.
"If you're required (by the church) to make everybody follow your Catholic role, then nobody would vote for Catholics because it's clear that when you get the authority, you're going to be guided by your faith," the former governor told the AP.
Cuomo said there are two positions a politician can take: They can oppose church doctrine outright or, as he did, accept church teachings personally but refuse to carry them into the public arena where they would affect people of every faith.
"Don't ask me to make everybody live by it because they are not members of the church," Cuomo said. "If that were the operative rule, how could you get any Catholic politician in office? And would that be better for the Catholic church?"
Associated Press Writer Rik Stevens in Albany, N.Y., AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York City and Associated Press Writer Michelle R. Smith in Providence contributed to this report.
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