Bishop of Providence Thomas J. Tobin has responded to Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s contention that his dissent from Catholic teaching on abortion does not make him “less of a Catholic.” Saying that such dissent renders the lawmaker's communion “flawed,” he urged Kennedy to become a “profile in courage” and to defend the unborn.
Rep. Kennedy (D-R.I.), the son of the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, had accused the Catholic Church of fanning “the flames of dissent and discord” because of the Catholic bishops’ opposition to proposed health care reform that does not explicitly prohibit funding of abortion.
Bishop Tobin responded critically to the congressman and asked for an apology.
A meeting had been scheduled between the prelate and the politician, but a Tuesday statement from the Diocese of Providence said it had been postponed.
“Bishop Tobin remains hopeful the he can meet with Congressman Kennedy in a personal and pastoral setting in the very near future,” the diocese reported.
Responding to Rep. Kennedy in his Nov. 12 diocesan newspaper column, Bishop Tobin said he usually does not speak about someone’s faith in a public setting but it has become an issue in his exchange with Rep. Kennedy.
The bishop focused on Rep. Kennedy’s comment in an Oct. 29 letter in which the Congressman said:
“The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.”
Bishop Tobin said the statement could not go unchallenged because it raises an important question about what it means to be a Catholic.
In a way, Bishop Tobin commented, disagreement with the Catholic hierarchy does make someone less of a Catholic.
“Although I wouldn’t choose those particular words, when someone rejects the teachings of the Church, especially on a grave matter, a life-and-death issue like abortion, it certainly does diminish their ecclesial communion, their unity with the Church.
“This principle is based on the Sacred Scripture and Tradition of the Church and is made more explicit in recent documents,” the bishop explained.
He cited sections from canon law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church about the layman’s obligation to learn Christian doctrine and to live in accord with it.
One’s refusal to accept the teaching of the Church, Bishop Tobin added, makes one’s communion with the Church “flawed.”
He explained that a Catholic believes and accepts the teaching of the Church “especially on essential matters of faith and morals.” A Catholic must also belong to a local parish, attend Mass on Sunday, and receive the sacraments regularly.
Further, a Catholic must give personal, public, spiritual and financial support to the Church.
Bishop Tobin asked whether Rep. Kennedy accepted these “basic requirements of being a Catholic,” including the Catholic stance on abortion.
The bishop said it was “terrific” that Rep. Kennedy has said he embraces his faith. But he wondered what makes Kennedy a Catholic.
Rep. Kennedy’s rejection of Catholic teaching on abortion is a different category than ordinary human imperfection, Bishop Tobin added. Rather, he wrote, it is “a deliberate and obstinate act of the will” that has been re-affirmed “on many occasions.”
“Sorry, you can’t chalk it up to an ‘imperfect humanity.’ Your position is unacceptable to the Church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church,” the bishop continued.
The prelate told Rep. Kennedy that he wrote his words not to embarrass or judge him but to correct the public record and to invite him into “a sincere process of discernment, conversion and repentance.”
He said Rep. Kennedy could still repair his relationship with the Church and redeem his public image. Alluding to the book by the congressman’s uncle, President John F. Kennedy, he said Rep. Kennedy could become an authentic “profile in courage” by defending the sanctity of unborn human life.