Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin's Response to Rep. Patrick Kennedy

Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin issues a forceful response to Rep. Patrick Kennedy.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

It's really rare that a dispute between an elected official and the Roman Catholic Church plays out as publicly as the one happening now between Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy and Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin. After Kennedy, son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, revealed that Tobin asked him to forgo Holy Communion because of his pro-abortion rights stance—Kennedy said the bishop ordered him to skip Communion, though the bishop says it was a "request"—Tobin struck back with a very forceful statement yesterday, which I've pasted below.

Reading it, I have to wonder: Will this kind of nasty public back and forth between the church and elected officials become more commonplace, as a bigger handful of bishops speak out against Catholic politicians who support abortion rights? And if so, will a more publicly confrontational style on culture war issues strengthen the church's influence in politics and government or weaken it?

I am disappointed and really surprised that Congressman Patrick Kennedy has chosen to re-open the public discussion about his practice of the faith and his reception of Holy Communion.

This comes almost two weeks after the Congressman indicated to local media that he would no longer comment publicly on his faith or his relationship with the Catholic Church. The Congressman's public comments require me to reply.

On February 21, 2007, I wrote to Congressman Kennedy stating: "In light of the Church's clear teaching, and your consistent actions, therefore, I believe it is inappropriate for you to be receiving Holy Communion and I now ask respectfully that you refrain from doing so." My request came in light of the new statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that said, "If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definite teachings on moral issues, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain." (Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper, December, 2006)

In the same letter I wrote to Congressman Kennedy, "I am writing to you personally and confidentially as a pastor addressing a member of his flock . . . At the present time I have no need or intention to make this a public issue." I also indicated, "I am available to discuss this matter with you in person at any mutually convenient time and place. I would welcome the opportunity to do so."

On February 28, 2007, the Congressman responded to me, "I have the utmost respect for the work you do on behalf of the Catholic community in Rhode Island . . . I understand your pastoral advice was confidential in nature and given with the best intentions for my personal spiritual welfare."

I am disappointed that the Congressman would make public my pastoral and confidential request of nearly three years ago that sought to provide solely for his spiritual well-being.

I have no desire to continue the discussion of Congressman Kennedy's spiritual life in public. At the same time, I will absolutely respond publicly and strongly whenever he attacks the Catholic Church, misrepresents the teachings of the Church, or issues inaccurate statements about my pastoral ministry.

As I wrote to the Congressman in February of 2007, and repeated in my public letter earlier this month, I am willing and even anxious to meet with him, to discuss these matters. My door remains open. However, it should be absolutely clear the Congressman himself has once again chosen to make this discussion a matter of public record.

In the meantime, I will continue to pray—sincerely and fervently—for his conversion and repentance, and for his personal and spiritual well-being. I wish him well.