On Monday Bishop Thomas Tobin tangled with television pundit Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s “Hardball” about the relation between religion and politics as well as the legal status of abortion. Matthews’ comments, which charged that the bishop has overstepped his authority, were criticized as a “rant” and an “extended lecture.”
Bishop Tobin, of the Diocese of Providence has been critical of Rhode Island U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s attacks on the Church for opposing abortion. Rep. Kennedy recently revealed that the bishop had asked him to refrain from receiving Holy Communion in 2007 because of his public contradiction of Catholic teaching.
Chris Matthews began the Monday evening “Hardball” segment with a clip of remarks by Rep. Kennedy’s uncle President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic U.S. president. In his political campaign President Kennedy had said that a politician should not accept “instruction on public policy” from the Pope or any other ecclesiastical source.
In response, Bishop Tobin emphasized that all religious believers, including Catholic politicians, should put their faith before their career.
“Nothing can become more important than your relationship with God,” he told Matthews, who is Catholic.
Bishop Tobin endorsed a return to U.S. law before the pro-abortion Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. Matthews pressed him on this point, asking what laws he would write if he were a member of Congress.
“I am not a member of Congress, but if I were, I would never be in a position of supporting any abortion legislation that encourages abortion,” the bishop replied.
“What law would you pass?” Matthews pressed. “You’re coming down on Congressman Kennedy and other public officials. …Would you outlaw abortion?”
“That’s the direction our nation ought to move,” the prelate responded.
Asked to tell Catholics how they should vote as members of Congress, he said Catholics should vote for laws that “preserve and protect human life.”
Matthews asked Bishop Tobin to be specific, asking whether women who procure abortions should be thrown in jail.
“I have no idea what the penalty would be,” the bishop replied.
Matthews professed agreement with the bishop’s moral views, but then claimed Bishop Tobin had “transgressed” into the area of lawmaking. He characterized the bishop’s reluctance to name specific penalties for a woman who procures abortion as an expression of “hesitancy” from the clergy.
“Words like ‘murder’ and ‘killing’ are used in the case of abortion but they do not seem to apply in terms of writing the law,” Matthews commented. “And I would urge you to consider the possibility of error here, because in getting into telling public officials how to set public policy, you’re stepping beyond moral teaching, and you’re basically assuming a moral authority which I don’t think is yours.
“As you admitted tonight four or five times, you don’t know how to write law, and writing law is very tricky in our secular society,” Matthews’ comments concluded.
“I will reflect on that if you reflect on the teachings of the Church,” Bishop Tobin responded.
Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights characterized Matthews as having “spun out of control.”
“Matthews proceeded with an extended and quite insulting lecture,” Donohue charged in a Tuesday press release. “He had absolutely no interest in a discussion on the question of the morality and legality of abortion—all he wanted to do was to make the bishop sit there and listen to his rant. Indeed, his tirade was simply over-the-top.”
Donohue claimed that no non-Catholic would treat a bishop in such a way.
“But too many liberal Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, think they are exempt from the same standards of civility that apply to others.”
Pro-life advocate Jill Stanek wrote on her blog that she thought the Matthews interview should have focused on the question “Are preborns human or not?”
“If they are, then we need laws to protect them, just as we do all other innocent human life. If we're not sure - if the answer is above one's pay grade - then we should err on the side of life,” she wrote.
The question of criminal penalties for women who seek abortions is a common talking point among supporters of permissive abortion laws. The issue was considered in an August, 2007 symposium titled “One Untrue Thing” on the conservative web site National Review Online.
In that symposium, Villanova University law professor Joseph Dellapenna said “none of the anti-abortion laws overturned by Roe v. Wade… treated the woman as a criminal.”
Rather, he explained, the laws treated the woman as a victim in part because of the dangers of abortion and in part because of the need for her testimony to convict the abortionist.
In the same symposium Clarke D. Forsythe of Americans United for Life pointed out that before Roe the abortionist, not the prosecutor, tried to argue that an abortion-seeking woman should be treated as an accomplice. This was done “for the obvious purpose of undermining the state’s criminal case against the abortionist,” he wrote.
According to an announcement from pundit Bill O’Reilly, Bishop Tobin will appear on Fox News’ O’Reilly Factor tonight. The show airs at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time and reruns at 11:00 p.m.