BISHOP THOMS J. TOBIN is within his rights, as prelate of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, to ask Representative Patrick Kennedy to refrain from seeking Holy Communion. The church considers abortion a mortal sin, and Catholics like Kennedy who support abortion rights are sinners in the church’s eyes. Yet the standard to which the bishop is holding Kennedy is unfair both to the Rhode Island congressman and Catholics in American public life more generally.
In essence, Tobin is not just calling on Kennedy to hew to the church’s position on abortion; in a diverse society that includes people of all faiths and none, the bishop is insisting that the congressman use his position to enshrine church teachings into public policy. Yet democracy depends on a willingness to accept differences, especially in matters of religion.
The church, of course, must define for itself what it means to be a Catholic. Pope Benedict XVI and many other church leaders have emphasized the significance of the church’s opposition to abortion, even among other church teachings.
But in considering the severe sanction requested of Patrick Kennedy, it is worth noting that there are many other public policies that the church considers sinful, and that elected representatives rarely, if ever, are asked to pay a similar price for them. The church opposes the death penalty but does not seek to withhold Communion from politicians who support it. The church decries most wars, but prelates do not deny privileges to those whose policies make such wars possible. If they did, many parishioners would be outraged at the heavy-handedness of their church leaders.
No doubt, Tobin believed that the special emphasis the Catholic hierarchy places on abortion justifies his decision to ask Kennedy to refrain from seeking Communion. It is uncertain if Tobin made the same request of others, or if Kennedy was singled out, but it seems likely that he was. While Rhode Island is the most Catholic state, it is also among the most reliably Democratic. A great many Catholic voters there, including many Catholic politicians, support abortion rights but in all probability seek and receive Communion every Sunday.
Among Catholic politicians, Patrick Kennedy is both an obvious target, because of his prominence, and a deeply ironic one, because of the decades of loyalty and support the Kennedy family has given to the Catholic Church. Though they may not always have lived strictly by church teachings, Patrick’s father, uncles, aunts, and grandmother were all devout Catholics whose intensive commitment to worship drew others into the church. The Kennedys accorded priests and bishops an honored position in their lives. Edward Kennedy’s dying appeal to the pope proves that the church was never far from the late senator’s mind.
In 1960, Patrick Kennedy’s uncle fought bravely to convince voters that he could keep his personal beliefs apart from his public responsibilities. John F. Kennedy knew that he was elected president of all the people, not just Catholics, and could not give church authorities disproportionate influence while remaining true to his oath of office. And yet that’s exactly what Tobin is expecting from Patrick Kennedy now.