November 23rd, 2009
08:00 PM ET
4 years ago

Abortion and politics a volatile mix for U.S. Catholics

 A dispute over abortion between Rep. Patrick Kennedy and his Roman Catholic bishop has highlighted the political volatility of the issue and the challenge it presents to the nation's Catholics.
A dispute over abortion between Rep. Patrick Kennedy and his Roman Catholic bishop has highlighted the political volatility of the issue and the challenge it presents to the nation's Catholics.

Washington (CNN) - A dispute over abortion between the only remaining Kennedy in Congress and his Roman Catholic bishop has highlighted the political volatility of the issue and the challenge it presents to the nation's Catholics.

"How can you claim to be a Catholic and also support abortion?" Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, asked Monday on CNN, discussing his request that Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Rhode Island Democrat, stop receiving Holy Communion because of his pro-choice politics.

Kennedy went public Sunday about Tobin's request, originally made in a private letter to Kennedy in 2007. Tobin responded with a statement Sunday followed by his television appearance Monday, in which he acknowledged holding Kennedy to a higher standard than an ordinary parishioner because of the congressman's position as a legislator who can shape abortion laws and policy.

The issue is considered much broader than a public rift between the two men. A sweeping health care bill in Congress could get derailed by conflicts over abortion language, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last week criticizing a Senate version of the measure for lacking the tougher language adopted earlier by the House.

Kennedy, scion of the most influential Catholic family in U.S. history, is the son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and nephew of the late John F. Kennedy, the nation's first Catholic president. When running for president in 1960, John Kennedy famously said he was "not the Catholic candidate for president," but "the Democratic Party's candidate for president who also happens to be be a Catholic."

Edward Kennedy was known for his liberal policies, including support for a woman's right to choose an abortion. When he died earlier this year, a Roman Catholic funeral Mass was held in Boston's Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica.

Patrick Kennedy holds similar views to his late father, and the dispute with Tobin festered anew when Kennedy publicly criticized the Catholic Church for opposing health care reform that lacked stringent anti-abortion language.

Requests to Kennedy's offices in Washington, D.C., and Rhode Island for comment Monday went unanswered. Tobin, appearing on CNN, called Kennedy's support of abortion "a scandal."

Asked why he was singling out Kennedy, Tobin said the congressman started the dispute by attacking the church's opposition to a health care bill that lacks tough abortion restrictions. He acknowledged "a difference between someone who is the average Catholic in the pew … and someone like the congressman who is in a high-profile position and is in a position to effect legislation on allowing access to abortion."

Other Catholics questioned Tobin's stance.

"The simple fact is that most bishops don't want to deny communion to politicians, and we know for a fact that Pope John Paul II gave communion to pro-choice Italian politicians," the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told CNN. "So the question is, is Bishop Tobin more Catholic than the pope on this?"

Politicians have previously run afoul of Catholic bishops on the abortion issue. Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann asked Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to stop receiving communion when she was a pro-choice governor of Kansas, and former St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said in 2004 he would deny communion to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for being pro-choice.

Brian McLaren, a longtime Christian pastor who has written a book coming out next year called "A New Kind of Christianity," said politicizing religious views limits the perception and, eventually, the impact of a church's teachings.

"Both Catholics and Protestants have allowed themselves to be pushed in to this kind of binary, either-or thinking" on abortion and homosexuality, McLaren told CNN in a telephone interview. "It's disturbing for me as a non-Catholic to see the Catholic Church possibly risking its moral authority on a number of other issues by only focusing on abortion."

The Roman Catholic church strongly opposes abortion, which has been legal across the United States since 1973. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbied for tight restrictions on federal funding of abortion in the health care bill the House passed earlier this month.

In an October interview, Kennedy criticized the bishops for threatening to oppose the health care bill if it lacked the tough restrictions. In the House debate on the measure, Kennedy opposed a provision with the church-backed restrictions on federal money for abortions, but voted in favor of final passage of the bill that included that language.

He repeated that criticism and revealed Tobin's earlier admonition in an interview published Sunday, the 46th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Tobin responded by calling Kennedy's position "unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members."

Most bishops and priests oppose using communion as a "political weapon," and Kennedy's disclosure of Tobin's admonition may be an attempt to push back against the bishops' support for the abortion restrictions in the House bill, CNN senior Vatican analyst John Allen said.

"The Catholic bishops have been fairly successful, at least to date, at putting abortion at the center of the debate over health care reform, and that obviously has generated some resentment from people who don't share their views," Allen said. Kennedy's decision to come forward "in effect puts the Catholic bishops in a negative light, because it ends up making them look intolerant."

To McLaren, the admonishment by Tobin displays an inconsistency.

"The bishops have taken I think a wise stand against the proliferation of nuclear weapons," he said. "Would they apply withholding of the Eucharist to someone who supports increasing nuclear stockpiles?"

The health care debate reveals the depth of division on the issue, according to McLaren. Both sides apparently believe they are advocating language that makes the legislation effectively "abortion neutral," meaning it doesn't change existing abortion law.

"What we discovered is 'abortion neutral' is a matter of interpretation," McLaren said, adding: "This is what happens in the politics of polarization. Each side plays to its more extreme base. It makes common ground and respectful
dialogue harder to achieve. The idea that we're playing a win-lose game, that you're saying if you don't agree with us, we're not even going to have a conversation with you, that attitude chills civil discourse."


Filed under: Abortion • Health care • Patrick Kennedy
soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. the philosopher

    If Kennedy were asking the Catholic Church to permit abortion, I can (sort of) understand asking him to not take communion. He is doing nothing related to the Catholic Church in his role as a member of Congress. Passing a bill allowing abortion has never forced a Catholic (or anybody else) who was OPPOSED to abortion to have one. I think Kennedy deserves a lot of credit for this stance from anybody who believes that women AND men should be able to make a decision about how many children they can support financially or psychologically.

    November 23, 2009 10:30 pm at 10:30 pm |
  2. Kennedy will burn.....

    in hell for his willingness to kill children in the womb......

    November 23, 2009 10:39 pm at 10:39 pm |
  3. Ryan from Missouri

    The Catholic Church has not lost its "moral authority" because when it come to true morals, they simply have never had them. The Catholic Church is nothing more than an authoritarian organization filled with a bunch of funny dressed celibate men who think they know more about life and sex than the rest of us.

    Denying communion to someone because of their stance on the rights of women is completely absurd and backwards. Why someone would want to be a member of the Catholic church is a mystery to me.

    November 23, 2009 10:48 pm at 10:48 pm |
  4. Mark

    I always laugh at those Boston liberals that call themselves Catholic.

    November 23, 2009 10:49 pm at 10:49 pm |
  5. FLAGSHIP, NC

    A 12 year old girl gets pulled into an alley, she is beaten and raped by 5 men. After which, she ends up getting pregnant.
    Which Bishop is going to tell her to her face, that she is going to be forced that have that baby or she will not be able to receive communion? Does he even have the ability to understand what would be going through that 12 year old's head??

    A pregnant wife gets an infection in her uterus while she is 3 months pregnant. The infection is killing her.
    Which Bishop is going to tell her to her face, that she is going to be forced that have that baby and die or she will not be able to receive communion? So what kind words would the Bishop then have for the husband or her other children?

    All those soldiers who had killed some one in Iraq and Afghanistan, are they being told not to receive communion? Or is this Bishop picking and choosing which Commandments he is going to play politics with this week.

    I was born and raised as a Roman Catholic. I went through all the schooling. But there is something very wrong here when the Church starts becoming active in politics with unfairness and no compassion for the girls and women what have become victims through no fault of their own.

    November 23, 2009 10:49 pm at 10:49 pm |
  6. snowflake

    What ever happened to the separation of church and State?

    November 23, 2009 10:53 pm at 10:53 pm |
  7. bc

    As a Catholic I believe that the ONLY judge toward my life and actions is God–NOT a Bishop, a Priest or a Pope!

    Perhaps the church should stop giving communion to those who have had an abortion, takes oral contraception, uses condoms, has had a vasectomy, or had her tubes tied? How about those divorced who still receive communion? Or those married who cheat on their spouse?

    Show me a Priest/Bishop/Pope who has had to face the agonies that some women have had to experience in their lives whether it be a pregnancy through rape by a drug addict or the heartbreak of knowingly carrying a fetus that will never walk/talk/know right from wrong, etc. And as those medical bills keep mounting, the American tax payers keep yelling, "I'm tired of my tax dollars paying for those who can't pay their bills!" If we think things are tough now, just think what it would be like if we had millions more of mouths to feed.

    The church that does not allow their priests to marry, women to be priests, and turns a blind eye toward their own gay Priests are now welcoming married ministers from the Episcopal Church who are against women being ministers and gays. That is just plain hypocritical!
    AND THEY WONDER WHY MEMBERS ARE ABANDONING THE CATHOLIC CHURCH?

    November 23, 2009 11:00 pm at 11:00 pm |
  8. moosehead

    I would like to ask the good Bishop Tobin,... how can you be a priest and be a pedophile?...And how can the Catholic Church claim to be so moral and the conscience of the unborns,.. when they swept the sexual attacks on the already born under the carpet.

    November 23, 2009 11:08 pm at 11:08 pm |
  9. democrackpipe

    Why should the church play paddy cake with these baby killers ? Let them go join the Church Of The Goreacle or perhaps Mr. Obama's church run by the Rev. Wright.

    For Mr. Kennedy to attempt to wrap himself in the cloak of the Holy Roman Catholic church is disgusting.

    November 23, 2009 11:09 pm at 11:09 pm |
  10. independent

    The politicizing of the Catholic Church is pushing more moderate democrats to question the legitimacy of the leadership of the church. As a catholic, I am dissatisfied with the emphasis on some of Jesus' teachings over others, especially since this appears to align itself with one political party's agenda over another.

    November 23, 2009 11:10 pm at 11:10 pm |
  11. the Film Professor

    We do have something called the separation of church and state in this country for a reason. The Bishop should be ashambed to be using his post to punish a parishoner for political reaons. I applaud Patrick Kennedy for standing up to him.

    November 23, 2009 11:11 pm at 11:11 pm |
  12. GuyInVA

    Representative Patrick Murphy was recently quoted saying that no catholic politician should allow their votes to be influenced by the church. He is correct. However, no priest should allow himself to be pressured into giving communion to someone he believes is outside of church doctrine, regardless of the issue. Even if that person is a member of a prominent family. This didn't have to be public. Representative Kennedy made it so.

    Now, onto the debate over health care reform... or is it health insurance reform. I forgot who the villain of the day is. We get to hear about the 45,000 – no wait, 38,000 – or whatever fictional number of people die each year due to lack of health insurance coverage. Yet, nary a word about the number of unborn children that die each year at the hands of health care providers. Where are you to bemoan this "holocaust" Rep. Grayson?

    November 23, 2009 11:35 pm at 11:35 pm |
  13. SG Baker

    I believe it is time for the Royal Kennedy Family (NOT)to quietly exit the stage if they cannot abide by their religeous demands. You cannot have your cake and eat it too.

    I happen to believe in a very restricted abortion program but I vehemently refuse to accept the hollywood style of abortions on demand used as a convenient birth control measure. I also believe that the child is a human once the heart is beating inside the womb.

    Free Health Care? Not on this continent. I just received my new bumper sticker for my car, it reads "Stop Socialism Now"!!!

    November 23, 2009 11:42 pm at 11:42 pm |
  14. From MN

    Find a new faith

    November 24, 2009 12:03 am at 12:03 am |
  15. Michael

    A Catholic Bishop nor a Jewish Rabbi nor a Muslim Imam has a right to tell someone they can't take communion or break bread because of a political view in the United States of America. The Party of NO is enough- know we have the religion of NO?

    November 24, 2009 12:15 am at 12:15 am |
  16. Richard N. Komi

    I think Bishop Tobin is trying to arm twist Kennedy by barring the congressman from taking communion. A clear case of the church trying to influence the state. It is wrong for the Bishop to use the church to intimidate the congressman.

    November 24, 2009 12:24 am at 12:24 am |
  17. Don

    Whatever happened to the Catholic Church being for feeding the hungry and caring for the sick? All they seem to care about now is being against abortion and gay marriage. I don't disagree that these are issues they can take on, but it is dominating their time and energy, and has turned many families like mine away from the church.

    November 24, 2009 12:28 am at 12:28 am |
  18. Jimbo

    Ah the Catholic Church, continuing to do everything instutionally possible to drive people from its ranks. Good work Tobin.

    November 24, 2009 12:53 am at 12:53 am |
  19. KO

    Bishop Tobin should be ashamed of himself for using the Eucharist as a weapon. It's anti-Catholic, and anti-Christian.

    November 24, 2009 12:55 am at 12:55 am |
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