Sunday, Solemnity of Christ the King…
From the Providence Journal:
WASHINGTON — Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has forbidden Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy to receive the Roman Catholic sacrament of Holy Communion because of his advocacy of abortion rights, the Rhode Island Democrat said Friday.
“The bishop instructed me not to take Communion and said that he has instructed the diocesan priests not to give me Communion,” Kennedy said in a telephone interview.
Kennedy said the bishop had explained the penalty by telling him “that I am not a good practicing Catholic because of the positions that I’ve taken as a public official,” particularly on abortion. He declined to say when or how Bishop Tobin told him not to take the sacrament. And he declined to say whether he has obeyed the bishop’s injunction.
Bishop Tobin, through a spokesman, declined to address the question of whether he had told Kennedy not to receive Communion. But the bishop’s office moved quickly to cast doubt on Kennedy’s related assertion about instructions to the priests of Rhode Island.
“Bishop Tobin has never addressed matters relative to public officials receiving Holy Communion with pastors of the diocese,” spokesman Michael K. Guilfoyle said in an e-mailed statement.
This latest exchange between Bishop Tobin and Kennedy, the only remaining public official in the nation’s most prominent Catholic family, escalates their heated public debate over how the eight-term congressman’s work for abortion rights bears on his standing in the church.
Their dispute comes against the backdrop of the national debate about whether U.S. taxpayers should subsidize abortions in the new health-care system that President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress have labored for months to create.
The episode adds another volatile element to a highly emotional dispute that has complicated Mr. Obama’s pursuit of his top legislative priority.
For Catholics, the debate could scarcely be more visceral. The church holds that abortion is a taking of human life that is intrinsically evil. Exclusion from the Holy Eucharist — bread that the faithful believe to have been transformed into the body of Christ — is a rare and serious penalty to impose on any Catholic.
Over the past few weeks, Kennedy and Bishop Tobin have shown glimpses of their dealings in piecemeal fashion, revealing only a sketchy picture of the congressman’s status as a member of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence.
In an October interview about the opposition of the nation’s bishops to any health-care overhaul that did not include a strict ban on federal subsidies for abortion, Kennedy called into question the “pro-life” credentials of the churchmen. Health care for millions of uninsured is at stake, he said. Bishop Tobin shot back with a sharply worded statement, noting that the bishops are staunch and longtime supporters of reforming the health-care system. He said, however, that the bishops will not support a health-care bill that fails to include a ban on taxpayer subsidy of the procedure.
The exchange, via open letters and interviews, has continued, with Bishop Tobin pointedly suggesting that “obstinate” opposition to church doctrine on abortion should cause a Catholic public official to reconsider his membership in the church.
On Friday, in response to questions from a reporter, Kennedy asserted that Bishop Tobin had told him not to receive Communion. But like the bishop, Kennedy withheld key details about their discussions.
Asked how he reacted as a Catholic, Kennedy would say only that he has “personal feelings of disappointment” about the matter, but he declined to elaborate.
For his part, the bishop declined to be interviewed. Spokesman Guilfoyle said in an e-mail: “Bishop Tobin has nothing more to add to the current discussion for the time being. Any previous correspondence or conversations between the Bishop and the congressman is still considered private at this time.”
While the teachings of the church and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are clear on abortion, there is much disagreement on the issue of whether Catholic legislators should be penalized for action contrary to the doctrine.
“The vast majority of bishops don’t want people denied Communion” over the abortion issue, said Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit scholar at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington. “But the problem is, every time an individual bishop does it — especially if the public official has a high-profile name like Kennedy — it’s going to make headlines across the country and every bishop is going to suffer because of it,” Father Reese said.
Because every bishop has wide latitude in his own diocese, the controversy between Kennedy and Bishop Tobin is likely to be greeted with silence from other bishops — even if most would disagree with action to deny Communion to a Catholic legislator, according to Father Reese.
“We don’t comment on the individual actions of bishops because they are authoritative in their own dioceses,” said Deirdre McQuade, of the bishops conference, when asked about the exchanges between Kennedy and Bishop Tobin.
For the policy of the bishops conference, McQuade referred to a 2006 writing on how a Catholic maintains his or her worthiness to take Communion. If a Catholic were “knowingly and obstinately to repudiate … definitive teaching on moral issues,” the document says in part, then receiving Communion “would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.”
Orders by bishops to deny Communion to Catholic public officials are very unusual but not unprecedented. In 2003, another prominent Catholic Democrat with a mixed voting record on abortion, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, was admonished not to take Communion in his congressional district by Bishop Raymond Burke of LaCrosse.
Spokeswoman McQuade said the bishops conference could not give a count of how many times bishops have actually denied Communion to government officials. But a review of news accounts of the past two decades suggests that public impositions of the penalty are very uncommon. These are among the high-profile instances in contemporaneous news stories: a Sacramento bishop told Gray Davis not to take Communion when he was Democratic governor of California in 2003; in 2004, then-Gov. James McGreevey, of New Jersey, complied with the admonitions of three of the state’s bishops that he not take Communion.
Scholar Reese said the bishops have debated in previous years the issue of whether they should step beyond such appeals to the individual Catholic’s conscience. The context for the debate was the 2004 presidential candidacy of Sen. John F. Kerry, a Catholic Democrat from Massachusetts who supports abortion rights. Father Reese said fewer than 20 bishops supported a policy of denying Communion to such officials.
Early in that presidential campaign, Burke, who had become archbishop of St. Louis, told reporters that if Kerry were to approach him at a Mass in Missouri, “I would have to admonish him not to present himself for Communion.”
Last month, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop Burke to the Vatican’s Congregation of Bishops, a powerful body that helps the pontiff to select the world’s bishops. He also sits on the highest court of Catholic canon law.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, once urged Catholic officials who support abortion rights to refrain from Communion. But the newspaper said Cardinal O’Malley did not order Boston priests to deny them the sacrament. Kerry and the late Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Patrick Kennedy’s father and another supporter of abortion rights) both received Communion at Cardinal O’Malley’s installation as archbishop in 2003.
In 2004, a large majority of bishops “tried to persuade the minority not to do this — using Communion as a weapon,” Father Reese said, but the conference could not come to a consensus view on the issue.
Father Reese stressed that withholding Communion is not as grave a penalty as excommunication, which separates a Catholic from all the sacraments. If a bishop denies Communion to a Catholic, he or she “is still a Catholic,” Father Reese said. Indeed, he said “it would take a canon lawyer” to say whether a Catholic denied Communion in his own diocese would be free to receive Communion elsewhere.
With reports from Journal Staff Writer Karen Lee Ziner.
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