November 22, 2009

Diocesan Priests Ordered to Deny Communion? Congressman Kennedy Says Yes, Bishop Tobin Says No.

Carroll Andrew Morse

Bishop of Providence Thomas Tobin and Rhode Island First District Congressman Kennedy are offering two different versions of the latest consequences resulting from Congressman Kennedy's public statement that a true pro-life position requires the Catholic Church to support a healthcare plan that includes public funding for abortions (h/t commenter "Tim", who pointed to this Ray Henry AP story at, which led back to the John E. Mulligan original in the Projo)…

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.

As Congressman Kennedy is the only source making public the details of what the Bishop obviously considers to be a personal conversation, there is a reasonable possibility that what Bishop said is not being relayed accurately, not because of intentional dishonesty, but because the original message was not fully understood.


According to a new AP story from Ray Henry, Bishop Tobin's expression of concern regarding Congressman Kennedy's public positions conflicting with Church teaching predate the October, 2009 CNS video which brought the disagreement into the public light...

The Roman Catholic bishop of Rhode Island said Sunday that he asked Rep. Patrick Kennedy in a 2007 letter to stop receiving Communion, the central sacrament of the church, because of the congressman's public stance on moral issues.

Bishop Thomas Tobin divulged details of his confidential exchange with Kennedy after the Democratic lawmaker told The Providence Journal in a story published Sunday that Tobin had instructed him not to receive Communion. The two men have clashed repeatedly in the past few weeks over abortion.

Kennedy did not say where or how he received those instructions. He declined to say whether he has obeyed the bishop's request...

Tobin urged Kennedy not to receive communion in a February 2007 letter, a portion of which was released publicly by Tobin's office Sunday.

"In light of the Church's clear teaching, and your consistent actions, therefore, I believe it is inappropriate for you to be receiving Holy Communion and I now ask respectfully that you refrain from doing so," Tobin wrote.

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I have great disdain for patches and really cannot bring myself to defend him in anyway. However as a catholic im sort of put off by this for some reason. What will happen if certain bishops refuse to give communion to officeholders who support anti-illegal immigrant policy? While I'm not saying the issues are similiar in any way, what if the certain leaders of the catholic church (out of revenue concern?) begin making clear their support of illegal immigrants by refusing to give communion to anti-illegal office holders? Any wiser fellow catholics see this as a problem or am i reading into this in a way i shouldn't?

Posted by: steadman at November 22, 2009 12:09 PM

I won't make any claims to being wiser, but your concern, while indicating something on which an eye should always be kept, has echoes of a difficulty in modern thinking. We've such fear of moral authority that we fear its assertion even when legitimate. That is, bishops' taking a stand on a matter so thoroughly explored and articulated as abortion sparks the reaction that they'll take similarly hard stands on every matter of dispute.

The Catholic hierarchy has without a doubt gone to extremes in its assertions of authority, at points during its multimillennial history. That does not mean that we should go to other, and equally detrimental, extremes such as delegitimizing actions within a Church that take a harder stand than overt relativism.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 22, 2009 1:04 PM

Steadman, if you'll permit a reply from a non-Catholic/non-religious, the Bishop has stated repeatedly in recent interviews that life/abortion is one of the most important matters to the Catholic Church. Congressman Kennedy's vote to fund abortion, therefore, distances him from the teaching of an important tenet of the Catholic Church and, as I understand, is the basis for his (self) removal from the sacrament.

This is not my view of the matter; I'm trying to summarize the Church's stance in reply to the very good point that you raise.

Now, continuing from this point with my own view, their principled stance on a matter that they consider very important would be greatly watered down were they to begin handing out similar reprimands (for lack of a better word) on all matter of less reverential issues.

Posted by: Monique at November 22, 2009 1:25 PM

I'd amend only that it isn't so much a matter of degree of reverence as it is a difference of kind. The admonition not to kill innocent children rests on the plain propositions that abortion is killing and that unborn human beings count as, well, human beings. There's no prudential judgment as to whether taking the life of a fetus will kill it.

On the other hand, there is no commandment to provide full citizenship to all people who make it across your border. The admonition is to "welcome strangers," treating them as fully human and fully deserving of respect. I happen to believe that current immigration practice (as distinct from law) and (much more) proposed "comprehensive reforms" actually result in a greater amount of evil and harm in the world. One needn't go to those lengths, though, to see that there are multiple legitimate answers to the question of how to treat illegal aliens as a matter of policy.

That being the case, a bishop or priest may personally be persuaded that a particular public figure is advocating certain immigration policies out of sinful racism, but short of an unrepentant confession to that effect, there's much more room for conscience and judgment than there is when it comes to killing unborn children.

The relevant position on immigration is: "They should have to follow our reasonable procedures to enter the country," not "They are not people worthy of respect." The relevant position on abortion is, "They are not people worthy of a right to life."

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 22, 2009 1:47 PM

Agree with Justin. I'd go farther and say that trying to assert a moral equivalence between abortion and opposition to illegal immigration is a symptom of advanced moral relativism, itself an aspect of the modern disease of cultural relativism. This disease, while it may not affect the individual carrier, is fatal to civilized society.

Posted by: BobN at November 22, 2009 5:00 PM

Just a thought: since Tobin's purview doesn't extend beyond state lines, think Patrick takes communion freely in D.C., or makes the short trip to Fall River?
If I were in his shoes, I'd let Tobin make his edict, don't pick any more public fights with him (the advice I'm sure his dad would've given him), and just work around it.

Posted by: rhody at November 22, 2009 6:59 PM

I believe you, Rhody. After all anyone with a double-digit IQ would do that. But we're talking about Patrick Kennedy here.

Posted by: BobN at November 22, 2009 7:01 PM

It's not an edict, and anybody who would seek to avoid it doesn't understand their religion, however many digits it takes to describe their IQs.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 22, 2009 9:19 PM

""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."

Let's be clear as to impetus. The Congressman has released this two year old "news" in an attempt to portray himself as a victim of the Catholic Church and gain sympathy (and, presumably, votes) from the public.

Posted by: Monique at November 23, 2009 8:35 AM

Maybe he should start his own religion based on Catholicism, but that allows him to do anything he wants. I believe Henry VIII did that and it worked out OK. Certainly our Rep. has an ego no less huge.
And I hate to admit it but this is one of the few times I don't completely disagree with Patches' stance. Not that that matters in this argument, where what irks me most is his disingenuousness. I hate being played for a fool, something he keeps doing.

Posted by: Andy at November 23, 2009 2:23 PM

steadman posed the wrong question when he asked,"What will happen if certain bishops refuse to give communion to officeholders who support anti-illegal immigrant policy? That's a softball. There is no real equivalent between the two since denying an immigrant immigration rights does not, per se, lead to the immigrant's death. However, steadman might want to consider the consequence of certain bishops denying communion to officeholders who support the death penalty.

Pope Jon Paul II declared in St. Louis, MO in 1999 ""The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life,"" the pope preached to 100,000 people in the Trans World Sports Dome. ""Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform."" He called the death penalty ""cruel and unnecessary,"" and said it was so ""even in the case of someone who has done great evil.""

The following was recently published in The Houston Chronicle

Catholic leaders and scholars said ... that they expect that new Pope Benedict XVI will continue his predecessor's strong opposition to the death penalty.
Noting that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was one of Pope John Paul II's key policy people, they said he was clearly supportive of the former pontiff's condemnation of a "culture of death" that includes capital punishment. The stance prompted John Paul II to write then Gov. George W. Bush asking for clemency for death row inmates.

steadman, please observe the rebuttals which will follow. They will operate on the body of the abortion problem with laser beams and will hack at the body of capital punishment with sledge hammers. Funny how they howl "situational ethics" then split logical hairs in defense of a conclusion that they prefer.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at November 23, 2009 4:35 PM

Gee OTL, It seems when you are wrong, you are dead wrong.

Posted by: bobc at November 23, 2009 5:53 PM

Thanks for your "critique". Can you be a bit more specific? It would help establish a dialogue if you were.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at November 23, 2009 8:28 PM

Kennedy and other elected representatives who support reproductive choice are advocating for access and availability of a medical procedure for all. They do not do this to defy the church's teachings or to increase the numbers of abortions performed. They may be personally opposed to using this procedure or to advocating its use. When indivual officers of the church threatnen to punish catholic officeholders who support the right of women to safely have access to a medical procedure they do not do so because that officeholder is performing abortions or having an abortion, so we are forced to look at other motivations. Is this bishop a vain indivual who enjoys the sound of his own voice who can convince himself that speaking ( it seems non stop) on the new catholic radio station WPRO is helping to clarify the church's position to his flock. I thought that the tax exempt churchs provided the stage for such exclusive teaching and not the public airwaves. Could the bishop have succumbed to a moment of weakness and let anger rule his words. The congressman had given an interview and critized the church's position on the healthcare bill being debated. Did Tobin take this personally and decided to use his authority over the catholic officeholder. Is the threat of withholding the church's product for an officeholder who does not toe the line being directed from somewhere other than the bishop's office. The council of bishops or the Vatican? Is this part of an effort by this bishop to affect the elections next year?
Is it the same thing to advocate as it is to act? Do not the private acts define character more so than publicly held positions?

Posted by: Phil at November 24, 2009 7:02 AM


  1. Even for those who believe that "publicly in favor but personally opposed" is a tenable position, Rep. Kennedy went way beyond this position in the CNS interview. (More detail in this to appear in an upcoming post.)
  2. One thing that separation of church state does not mean is that religious figures may only express public opinions when they agree with the political opinions of their secular leaders.

Posted by: Andrew at November 24, 2009 8:05 AM

Bishop Tobin has every right to say anything about anything. I have the right to comment.

Posted by: Phil at November 24, 2009 5:55 PM
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