Act of conscience

Recently I went back and reread parts of the New Testament to make sure they were still correct. Yep, that part in there where Jesus says not to judge others lest you be judged is still in there. Also still in there is the parable of the Good Samaritan. There are many instances of Jesus talking about universal brotherhood.  Overall, Jesus comes across as a pretty inclusive guy, walking among the sinners and heathen alike and treating almost everyone with universal love, brotherhood and respect. As best I can tell, the only ones he ever really got upset with were the moneychangers at the temple in Jerusalem. He called them “broods of vipers” and other nasty terms. Even as he hung on the cross dying a miserable death, he asked God to forgive his enemies.

How then did the church that he founded some two millenniums later devolve into snippy episodes like this:

In an interview published Sunday, [Rep.] Patrick Kennedy told the Providence Journal that [Bishop Thomas J.] Tobin had barred him from receiving communion and instructed priests in the diocese not to administer the sacrament [to him] “because of the positions that I’ve taken as a public official.”

Bishop Tobin seems to have a personal vendetta against Representative Kennedy, because on October 23rd he publicly admonished Kennedy.

Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) “is irresponsible and ignorant of the facts” about the Catholic Church’s views on health care reform and “continues to be a disappointment to the Catholic Church and to the citizens of the State of Rhode Island,” said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the diocese of Providence in a statement released Friday in response to an interview conducted with Kennedy.

What drove such a high authority of the Catholic Church to deliver this sort of stinging public rebuke? Apparently, Kennedy sees a wee bit of inconsistency because the pro-life Catholic Church would rather see health care reform fail altogether than allow any health plan in it to cover abortion services. Mind you that neither the House nor the Senate envisions spending any federal dollars to cover abortion services. Proposed bills (at least prior to the Stupak-Pitts amendment in the House) merely allowed health insurance companies to cover abortion services with their own premiums, as many do now. The Catholic Church opposes any legislation that maintains the current compact. When asked by a CNS reporter of his response to the Catholic Church’s position, Kennedy apparently had the audacity to say:

I can’t understand for the life of me how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social justice issue of our time where the very dignity of the human person is being respected by the fact that we’re caring and giving health care to the human person – that right now we have 50 million people who are uninsured.”

“You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life saving health care?” said Kennedy. “I thought they were pro-life. If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health care reform because it’s going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive. So this is an absolute red herring and I don’t think that it does anything but to fan the flames of dissent and discord and I don’t think it’s productive at all.”

For those who follow the ins and outs of the Catholic Church, the bishop’s position is nothing new. What is new is the vendetta Bishop Tobin appears to be waging publicly and personally against Patrick Kennedy. It’s like an episode of The Prisoner. Kennedy has become an “unmutual” so he must be shunned, or at least denied Holy Communion within his diocese, as well as publicly admonished. Mind you, Kennedy is not being denied communion because he is an abortion provider, but because his votes as a public official are at variance from Tobin’s interpretation of Catholic theology. Kennedy’s uncle, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, was also threatened periodically by his bishop for his liberal positions on abortion rights. At least in Senator Kennedy’s case, it appears that while there was a lot of saber rattling, at no time was Senator Kennedy publicly denied communion. It appears that on some level his Massachusetts diocese recognized that the good that Senator Kennedy did because of his position and influence somewhat mitigated positions he advocated that were at variance with current Catholic theology.

It’s unclear exactly what Bishop Tobin expects to accomplish with his actions. It is possible, although unlikely, that Patrick Kennedy will have a change of heart and advocate policies and positions fully in line with Catholic theology. If he does, they will likely not align with the values of the very progressive state of Rhode Island that he is supposed to represent. In fact, Kennedy might have to look for other employment next November, because it is unclear if he toed the Catholic political line whether he would survive reelection.

Certain Catholic bishops are more authoritative and outspoken than others, and Bishop Tobin appears to be one of the egregious cases. It is disturbing, but not surprising, that he would make a public case out of Kennedy. Kennedy makes an easy example that perhaps can be used to keep others in line, or at least mum, perhaps creating a deterrent effect.

I hope Kennedy remains true to his convictions. If there is an authority higher that the Catholic Church, it is the right of individual conscience. For most people raised Catholic, the idea of leaving the church is heart wrenching. If Tobin is going to continue to single out Kennedy in a vindictive way, I hope he has the courage to leave the Catholic Church for a religious community where his freedom of conscience is embraced, not debased. Actions after all should have consequences and it was Tobin who acted first with his edict prohibiting Kennedy from receiving communion. If I were in Kennedy’s shoes, I would not leave this one unchallenged.

If he does leave the church, Kennedy may discover, as I did, that it was an action long overdue. In my opinion, any church that requires you to violate your own conscience is unworthy of your time, money or participation. I am confident that if Jesus were present among us today he would agree wholeheartedly because that is the Jesus that I have found in the Bible.

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