November 18, 2009

Kennedy's Church of Personal Influence

Justin Katz

One aspect of the controversy between Congressman Patrick Kennedy and Bishop Thomas Tobin with a broader application is Kennedy's misunderstanding of religion's place in life:

U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy said he was "not going to dignify with an answer" Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin's public comments that Kennedy could not be a good Catholic and still support abortion rights. Kennedy called those comments "unfortunate," and said, "I'm not going to engage [in] this anymore."

Clearly, Kennedy sees this as a political problem, and the bishop as a constituent whom he was willing to indulge if it would make the problem go away. (Doesn't this guy realize I'm a Kennedy?) Read the above in the context of the bishop's revelation, on Dan Yorke's show, that Kennedy had requested that their "private" meeting be held in a prominent public place during the lunch hour. As I suggested in a vlog back in September, fame and fortune distort one's perception of life, which can be especially detrimental on spiritual matters.

Wherever he believes the origin of the dispute to be, Kennedy should find it worrisome that he's run into this conflict with his Church and seek to resolve it, honestly and with openness and charity. Of course, one suspects that the irreducible requirement of any worldview, for him, is that women must be permitted to kill their children prior to birth, an irreducible division.

As Bishop Tobin implies in his letter to Kennedy, the congressman is effectively excommunicating himself:

Your letter also says that your faith "acknowledges the existence of an imperfect humanity." Absolutely true. But in confronting your rejection of the Church's teaching, we're not dealing just with "an imperfect humanity" — as we do when we wrestle with sins such as anger, pride, greed, impurity or dishonesty. We all struggle with those things, and often fail.

Your rejection of the Church's teaching on abortion falls into a different category — it's a deliberate and obstinate act of the will; a conscious decision that you've 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.

Kennedy may be able to find an ordained priest to administer Roman Catholic sacraments for him, but his religion appears to be more of the church of the individual sort — in his case, the Church of Kennedy. However strong his faith might be, it isn't Catholicism, not just because he rejects and actively, publicly works against a core consequence of its belief system, but also because he rejects its structure and authority. That's a pretty definitional consideration in the Catholic Church.

Indeed, for a sense of what Congressman Kennedy is doing to the Church whose faith he professes to share, look to his supporters. In a post titled "Stick to your guns, Patrick Kennedy" (illustrating an intention to attack the religious institution with militant imagery), by Sean South, Matt Jerzyk provides this nice little nugget as an update:

... as America seeks to undermine the influence of clerics overseas on other nations and groups, people of conscience should condemn Tobin's inappropriate attacks on Kennedy -- especially considering the fact that we are - after all - in the land of Roger Williams.

For trying to ensure the faithful representation of its beliefs — worked out as a matter of international cooperation through millennia of developing religious thought — the Church faces comparisons to radical terrorist regimes. One cannot expect better from irreligious Progressives, I fear, but even Patrick Kennedy should recoil from such rhetoric and take it as evidence that he ought to reevaluate his understanding of faith's requirements.

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This will be going on all over the country, if Archibishop Burke from St. Louis gets his way. In a Time story last week, he called for wafer watch on not just Catholic elected officials like Patrick, but ordinary Catholics as well.
My last visit to church was for my mother-in-law's funeral, and I (and other attendees) were able to accept communion without being administered the abortion question. Even my mother, a recent convert like yourself, thinks this whole affair is ridiculous.
Burke, who's now a canon law irubunal judge in Rome,went on jihad against Cardinal O'Malley for saying Ted's funeral Mass. That O'Malley - he's such a dangerous liberal, lobbying so hard against gay marriage and all before the Mass. legilsature.
Some Vatican observers speculated that Benedict XVI (such a lefty!) appointed Burke to the Rome job because he didn't want him diving into the presidential election like he did in '04 (even earning a rebuke from loyal pro-lifer Jim Langevin).
I can see an Anglican-like schism ahead in the Catholic Church if this wafer watch talk keeps up. And what happens if, God forbid, a Republican Catholic legislator is put on it?

Posted by: rhody at November 18, 2009 12:00 PM

This position does not make sense to me. Denial of communion is based on whether one supports the legal right to an abortion. You believe that ones ”vote” on the issue of abortion is justification to deny Eucharist.

This one mystifies me. You support the Church taking the hardest stand possible – denying communion – based on how one votes not on whether abortion is right or wrong but on whether it should be criminalized in all cases.

But obviously you don’t believe that ones vote on other issues such as the death penalty, war, or economic issues that may be different than the Churches justify such action by the Church. Just this one single issue.

To me, this is the ultimate misuse of a sacred Christian sacrament for political or policy purposes. Not ones behavior but ones vote in the context of public policy affecting whether one is eligible for a religious and personal sacrament.

Wow, what a precedent, talk about the slippery slope? I think the idea that there is or should be a litmus test on public policy questions as a requirement for having religious faith is a seriously misguided idea on many levels. It is not the exact same as the ideas of radical terrorist organizations but it does have some ugly things in common with them.

Posted by: msteven at November 18, 2009 4:02 PM

Did either of you actually bother to read Bishop Tobin's letter to the Congressman? He isn't saying, and has never said, that voting against the Church's teachings on abortion are grounds for excommunication. If that were the case, the letter could have been addressed to Jack Reed as well. The issue is the Congressman's obstinacy.

There is no shame in being an imperfect Catholic, that is to be expected. What the Congressman is doing is deciding for himself what "being a Catholic" means, which just so happens to be exactly the what he wants to believe. It's a position begging to be rebuked. Somehow I think that if this were Lieberman walking around proclaiming himself "no less a Democrat" because of the stances he's taken, you would have no problem with the DNC taking issue there.

I disagree with the Catholic hierarchy in all sorts of ways. Does that make me less of a Catholic? Of course. But I don't walk around calling my heresies just as good as doctrine. I recognize that my differences with the Church have separated me from full communion. The Congressman doesn't, so he needs to be told. The Bishop would be committing malpractice if he didn't step in to assist.

Posted by: Mario at November 18, 2009 4:29 PM


You're misunderstanding how sacraments function in the Catholic Church. It isn't a matter of the Church's denying access to God as punishment or as a disciplinary measure; rather, the Church is assessing that a particular Catholic is out of communion with the faith and it would therefore be an additional sin for that person to partake in the Eucharist and for clergy to knowingly be complicit in that sin. In the case of a public figure who is publicly out of communion with the Church, the problem is exacerbated by the hierarchy's need to affirm its teachings for the rest of the flock. In the case of Kennedy, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that he clearly does not understand or believe in the teachings of the Church.

I do wonder, though, why you believe voting to be a morally neutral act. Or is it a matter of degree? Would the Church meet your approval if it were to deny communion to a politician whose votes, fundraising, and advocacy all proclaimed the moral right to kill one's children up to the age three? How about 18? What about votes for slavery? Genocide? Is it the principle of voting or disagreement that killing one's children by a certain deadline is sufficiently acceptable that the Catholic Church is wrong to take its teachings seriously?

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 18, 2009 5:12 PM

Rhody --

Where did you get the idea that Archbishop Burke has criticized Cardinal O'Malley for saying Sen. Kennedy's funeral Mass?

That would be pretty odd, since Cardinal O'Malley did not say the Mass. He attended, but did not actually celebrate the Mass; the celebrant was former Boston College President J. Donald Monan, S.J.

Posted by: brassband at November 18, 2009 8:10 PM

I do understand the function of sacraments in the Catholic Church. My problem is with the Church assessing that a person is out of communion with the faith based on their votes on abortion-related issues. Doesn’t it seem a little arbitrary to you? They don’t apply the voting standard for ‘out of communion with the faith’ on other issues such as the death penalty. Why not?

I also take issue with you substituting the word ‘moral’ for legal. There is a significant difference. I guess if someone were actually advocating that abortion was the “morally” right thing to do that would be different. But to me, there is a significant distinction between supporting a legal right and advocating a moral right.

The Church certainly believes in helping the needy so why shouldn’t a politician who votes against funding for a social program be ‘out of communion’. I suspect your answer would be the distinction between ‘helping the needy’ as an individual and supporting the government to do so. I believe the same logic applies to abortion-related laws.

I have no problem with the Chruch taking its teachings seriously. But I see the application of this one litmus test as arbitrary and, in this case, politically motivated. Again, why this issue and not any others?

Posted by: msteven at November 18, 2009 9:05 PM


You're way out on a limb, in the context of Kennedy. So far as I can tell, he in no way qualifies his support for abortion (e.g., "I really hate that I have to do this, but I believe the laws that I'm sworn to uphold require this vote..."). You're also doggedly ignoring the larger point as a means toward playing "reasonable moderate" to a strawman version of me. I don't really have the time to play that game --- especially if you're going to ignore the bulk of my responses.

But to offer answers to your direct questions:

1. Death penalty: The Church allows a certain latitude for a legitimate governing authority to act in the protection of its citizens, and it maintains a (mostly theoretical) allowance for the death penalty. It's been an evolving position, though, as our civilization's capacity has advanced to render dangerous criminals effectively harmless. In short, though, there's more gray, here, than with killing unborn children. I'd also appreciate it if you could point me to a single public Catholic figure who's tested the Church on this one.
2. Charity: Clearly, the methods of dispensing charity are prudential. I'd argue that private charity is more conducive to the desired spiritual ends, and that charity via government has consequences that outstrip the benefits. You're requiring the expression of religion to be simple-minded, when it could not be so and still be plausible. But beginning with the belief that abortion unjustly kills an innocent child who possesses a God-given right to life, there really isn't room for a similar public/private distinction, and if you'd think for a few moments before commenting, I'm sure you'd conclude that the comparison is silly. Would it be suspicious for a group to insist that the state not murder grown citizens even though the same group is less insistent that the state give away money?
3. Why this issue? Well, it's in part due to the actions and statements of those who advocate for abortion. It's in part because the biology and morality are so blindingly clear that only willful obfuscation can raise doubts

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 18, 2009 9:34 PM

My last visit to church was for my mother-in-law's funeral, and I (and other attendees) were able to accept communion without being administered the abortion question.

As I understand it, you shouldn't have even presented yourself- the Church considers skipping Mass once is considered a sin, requiring absolution in order to receive Communion. I can only imagine that skipping Mass for that many days/weeks/months/years would make the requirement that much more important.

But nobody knew when you were last in church except you- requiring honesty on your part.

Posted by: EMT at November 18, 2009 10:06 PM

Kennedy was not electing to have an abortion. If he were to have an abortion he would not only be terminating a miraculous pregnancy, but he would be committing a grave sin as defined by the Catholic Church. Kennedy has never said that he would have an abortion. To my or anyone else’s knowledge, he has never suggested that someone have an abortion. He has spoken of his personal distaste for abortion. But the clairvoyant Justin puts thoughts in his head and words in his mouth with a phrase like, “Doesn’t this guy realize I’m a Kennedy?". Damning Kennedy with slanderous words that the man never uttered.

Justin takes another cheap shot at Kennedy when he says of the man, “fame and fortune distort one's perception of life, which can be especially detrimental on spiritual matters.” The statement has some truth to it, eye of the needle, etc., but it can apply to the bishop as well as to the parishioner. It can apply to Carcieri in Rhode Island, or to the Pontiff, himself in Rome, to George Bush, President Obama, or to Derek Jeter, but Justin hurls it recklessly at one person. Amazing! How does he know?

“However strong his faith might be, it isn't Catholicism,...” What’s happening here? Is Justin The First excommunicating Patrick? Justin, not a bishop, is passing judgment on another person's right to the sacraments. Smells like megalomania to me. Is Justin attempting to revive the Avignon Captivity and move the Holy Seat to Providence, R.I.? How can this man be stopped?

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at November 19, 2009 12:06 AM

OTL --

Holy Seat?


Posted by: brassband at November 19, 2009 7:17 AM

Let's begin by saying that I am a lapsed Protestant and may be in error as regards some Catholic rituals.

I think as a group we agree that a country which does not enforce its borders is not a country but a place. For myself, it is no feat of logic to apply the same to a religion which has "canon law". I do not see a difficulty in a church which determines that if you do not subscribe to a basic belief, you are not entitled to participate in the sacraments. A church which believes itself to be the "true faith" may choose to accept a certain amount of disaffection with a core belief, but it is not a democracy subject to majority rule. Historically, such divisions among the adherents results in schism, a result they are probably seeking to avoid.

For the Catholic church to seek to "defend its borders' is, I think, admirable. That they are not denying the sacrament to every errant Catholic is not necessarily a measure of their resolve. As I understand it, many sacraments are denied to those who do not agree. But rather than police the matter it is left to the conscience of the participants.

In sum, I think the Catholic church must speak of politicians who represent themselves as Catholics, but deny a basic tenant of the church. I see this as "defending the faith". As Americans we are schooled in democrcy, we nmust not forget that the Catholic church is styled as a monarchy.

In thinking of this, I recall my own heritage from the rural South. People there belong to a "church" rather than a "religion". If you find yourself in disagreement with the congregation, you move to another church. If you move to another town, you "visit churches" until you find one that suits you.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at November 19, 2009 9:46 AM


The comment by Kennedy you mention is … well lame and indefensible politically speaking. But still not the point. A strawman version of you? Do you not believe that any politician who votes in a way that does not criminalize abortion under any circumstances should be denied communion?

What do you mean by pointing to a single public Catholic figure that's tested the Church on the Death Penalty? It isn’t the figure who is testing, it is the Church. Are you saying there are no Catholic figures whose voting record supports the use of the death penalty?

I think you are the one way out on the limb here. You see no distinction between committing an act and voting as to whether act should be criminal. The latitude you cite for the death penalty does not pass the smell test. And there I no latitude for cases of rape?

I am reminded of something I heard on the radio yesterday. A school class in Arkansas is refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance until all people are equal to find liberty and justice for all. That liberty is defined as gay marriage. So until those principles are met to that standard, those students will not show respect to the United States.

I’m sure you will say there is no comparison but I disagree. The Church is taking a stand on being in communion with the faith based on – not whether they had an abortion, not whether they advocate having an abortion but based on how they vote (in representing their constituents) on policy to related to abortion.

OTL actually has some legitimate points. Ouch.

Posted by: msteven at November 19, 2009 10:03 AM


A religion is not a set of rituals. It's a set of beliefs. In Catholic theology, holding those beliefs is a critical requirement for salvation. Again, the point isn't that Kennedy has or hasn't had, performed, or personally argued for a particular abortion. The point is that he appears to believe the world to be such that mothers' killing their children for convenience is morally legitimate.

The bishop suggested that, if that is indeed his belief, he would be out of communion with his Church, and Kennedy's attitude in response has suggested that he is further out of his communion in his understanding of the Church's teaching authority.

Bishop Tobin isn't passing judgment so much as he's warning Kennedy that he's on the wrong path --- a warning that he has to give publicly because Kennedy's error is public.

More could be said on the theology, but I'm getting the feeling that you're not really interested in understanding.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 19, 2009 12:19 PM


I am aware that religion is set of beliefs, as opposed to a set of rituals.

If this is specific to exchanges between Sen. Kennedy & Bishop Tobin, that is one thing. I have not followed what has been said by either to bring up this situation.

My issue is the bringing in voting records as a litmus test for receiving religious sacraments. The voting records of a politician whose job it is to represent the constituents who elected him. If this were about someone who says, volunteered at Planned Parenthood, that again would be different. But I fail to see how a ‘vote’ could be cause for such a serious consequence. Also, are there other issues for which votes would qualify for denying Eucharist and being ‘out of communion with the faith’?

This is not about theology. I understand the reasons for denying sacraments. It is you who are not interested in seeing that this is slightly more complex than the killing of the unborn.

Mr. Faust, I agree with you in theory except that I cannot see how a vote on any issue can be considered a tenet of the faith, a border which cannot be crossed or that criteria for being ‘in the faith’ includes a vote. This is magnified further because it is not an individuals vote but an elected representative of the people. I believe that this border, as you refer to it, begins a very slippery and dangerous path towards … towards the very thing this country is fighting against.

Posted by: msteven at November 19, 2009 3:32 PM

Brass, you may be right that O'Malley didn't actually conduct the Mass, but it certainly would've required the Cardinal's say-so to go on.
BTW, read this week's Valley Breeze for the Charlie Hall cartoon about Tobin and Arlene Violet's take on the Kennedy-Tobin situation. She makes the point that if Tobin forces Patches out of the church, he only makes it much harder for other Catholics (even those who stay on the reservation) to get elected.

Posted by: rhody at November 20, 2009 1:45 AM