It is fitting that the current battle between the Catholic
Church and pro-choice lawmakers involves the nephew of the only Catholic
president and takes place in Rhode Island, which not only was the first colony founded
on the principles of religious liberty and the separation of church and state but
was the strongest state for John Kennedy in 1960.
Providence Bishop Tobin’s barring Patrick Kennedy from
receiving communion because of his pro-choice views is an assault on both Roger
William’s vision of the separation of church and state now enshrined in the
First Amendment and the Kennedy legacy itself (which the Church once embraced).
American Catholics have a historical relationship with the
Democratic Party, as the Church and the Party were the two principal
institutions that protected successive waves of immigrants from Europe in the 20th
Century. Nowhere was this more prevalent
than in my home state of Rhode Island which was two-thirds Catholic and
two-thirds Democratic (and often confused which was the religion).
This changed in 1980 when Boston’s Cardinal Medeiros issued
a pastoral letter stating that those who elect pro-choice candidates “cannot
separate themselves totally from [a] deadly sin.” Around this time, however,
Notre Dame President Father Hesburgh warned that by making abortion their
singular priority, the Church was asking Catholics to embrace candidates who
disagreed with almost all of the Church’s social justice teachings.
That is exactly what has happened. In 2004, despite the fact that in the U.S.
Conference of Bishops’ voter guide Senator Kerry beat President Bush in every
issue category, including protecting human life and promoting family life, Kerry
was ambushed by a number of U.S. cardinals and bishops over abortion. As a result, Kerry became the third Catholic
to win the Democratic nomination but the first to lose the Catholic vote.
Now Bishop Tobin has sanctioned Patrick Kennedy, who has received
a 100% voting score from NETWORK ( a Catholic social justice lobby) in four of
the last six years, petulantly calling him “ignorant” and “a disappointment”
while banning him from receiving communion after Kennedy criticized the Bishop
for opposing health care reform unless it rolled back existing abortion rights.
What message does it send when the Church will deny
communion to a pro-choice official like Patrick Kennedy whose voting record is
otherwise consistent with church teaching, but not pro-life officials guided by
the gospel of greed or intolerance or even mobsters such as the legendary crime
boss Raymond Patriarca who was given a Catholic funeral? I do
not recall the Sermon on the Mount exalting the greedy, bigots or wise guys.
Even worse is Bishop Tobin’s encroachment on the separation
of church and state. President Kennedy stressed
that he believed “in an America . . . where no public official either requests
or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of
Churches or any other ecclesiastical source.” Yet Bishop Tobin wants to claim that right
and require Catholic office holders to ignore the interests and views of their
non-Catholic constituents and legislate solely based on Church doctrine. Although when pressed by Chris Matthews on
this topic, Tobin was unable to articulate what he wants lawmakers to do.
It is ironic that this takes place in Rhode Island which was
known in colonial days as “the safest refuge of conscience” and home to the New
World’s first Baptist Church and synagogue because of Roger Williams’ vision of
separation of church and state. Although
it could be Rhode Island Catholic’s sensitivity to this separation that emboldens
them to ignore the Church’s political instructions (as a 1986 Church backed
referendum to ban abortion lost by a 2-1 margin and recent polling shows no
shift in this position); leading Bishop Tobin and others to lash out at their
elected officials to mask their powerlessness.
I am not a Catholic
scholar like my namesake (the late Rev. Bennet Kelley C.P.), but I know enough
to know that the Bible says nothing about abortion but plenty about hypocrisy,
pride and arrogance and that the Church has been wrong many times throughout history.
I also know Patrick Kennedy.
I know that he has been and will continue to be a great Congressman for Rhode
Island because he shares the passion and commitment of his father and uncles to
helping those less fortunate that Catholics once overwhelmingly embraced before
the Church’s recent moral myopia. That
is what led him to state publicly that
I can’t understand for the life of me
how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social justice issue of
Neither can I.