November 23rd, 2009
08:00 PM ET
11 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Kennedy went public Sunday about Tobin's request, originally made in a private letter to Kennedy in 2007.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. charlie in Maine

    Hey American Bishops.
    If you are acting as a PAC register and give up your tax exemption. Otherwise at least enforce your standards fairly and refuse Communion to Scalia and the rest of the right-wing Catholics who support the Death Penalty....... Otherwise you will be seen as just sipporting Republican sin.

    God wouldn't like that Davey

    November 23, 2009 08:39 pm at 8:39 pm |
  2. kman821

    From the Bishop ... abortion, BAD ... sex with alter boys, Good sport! The Catholic Church is a corrupt institutuion without moral authority.

    November 23, 2009 08:45 pm at 8:45 pm |
  3. LacrosseDad

    use to be a proud Catholic but with their liberal change to gain converts, they became another cult like islam.No donations ever.

    November 23, 2009 08:46 pm at 8:46 pm |
  4. mjm

    What's the point of being Catholic if you're going to support abortion?

    Kennedy is a hypocrite. There are plenty of pro-life Democrats.

    It seems like Kennedy needs to find a new religion.

    And what part of "private letter" does Kennedy not get?

    November 23, 2009 08:49 pm at 8:49 pm |
  5. Albo58

    If the Catholic church wants to be the protector of this religion, then they should pass judgement on these polticians that do not take their beliefs seriously. Everyone already knows that they are hypocrits so now the church is FINALLY admitting it!

    November 23, 2009 08:54 pm at 8:54 pm |

    Have they fixed their priest pedophilia problem? No? Then shutteeee.

    November 23, 2009 08:56 pm at 8:56 pm |
  7. Sue C

    just caught the end of your program interviewing Catholic priests on the Kennedy/abortion issue.....angers me....Im non practicing embarrased Roman Catholic....I want to know why its been 'okay' for the priests who have committed sexual abuse to our young children over the years been prosecuted ? do they still receive Holy Communion? also why have 'guests' in the church been allowed to receive Communion when we were taught only Catholics can? why has the church changed their position towards divorced couples, some of whom have remarried in the church under the guise of annulment? they are now receiving Communion!

    so what is next? will there now be a questionaire before Mass asking women if they have ever gotten an abortion.

    and you wonder why many have left, and churches are closing down due to not enough of parishioners. Stay out of politics and clean up the church from within first!

    November 23, 2009 08:57 pm at 8:57 pm |
  8. Sean

    Does "separation of church and state" mean anything to the Catholic Church? If they want to voice their stance, then fine. But to actually try to coerce politicians into doing the bidding of the Catholic Church is simply inappropriate. I'm not Catholic, and I don't appreciate them thinking that our nation's laws should be shaped around their teachings.

    November 23, 2009 09:05 pm at 9:05 pm |
  9. rjt

    Kennedy is a name that represents the most powerful, wealthiest, nastiest bunch of egotistical monsters to have invaded US government. A few less of them please.

    November 23, 2009 09:06 pm at 9:06 pm |
  10. no problem, just remove their exempt status

    it really is just a problem that churches are not taxed

    what basis are they not taxed

    a rule that must change

    November 23, 2009 09:18 pm at 9:18 pm |
  11. ed lehner

    If the catholic church wants to enter the political arena, I say take away their tax exempt status. And I would also like took where these moral self righteous folks were when bush started his illegal wars that killed thousands of innocents?

    November 23, 2009 09:19 pm at 9:19 pm |
  12. Terry - Indiana

    I recommend that Mr. Kennedy contact the Internal Revenue Service and request that the Tax Exempt Status of the U.S. Catholic Church be reviewed for violations associated with attempts to blackmail a sitting member of the congress. Have we lost sight of the separation of Church & State. Mr. Kennedy, seek out another church. God is not Catholic!

    November 23, 2009 09:25 pm at 9:25 pm |
  13. Joe Fattal

    There is sense of a little hypocrisy from the Catholic Church. Abortion, which is the killing of life, and that depends when life begins, and adultery, which is cheating on your loved one, both are included in the 10th commandments in the Bible. It seems that the Catholic church is making more out of it, than adultery or any other sins. We are living in this country under a state run government not a religious one. Abortion is a state issue, and the Catholic Church needs to stay out of it. If the Catholic Bishop ban Rep. Kennedy from the communion, that is his own choice. But if I was Rep.Kennedy I would tell the Bishop, your tax exempt is over with.

    November 23, 2009 09:25 pm at 9:25 pm |
  14. howie

    And I thought we were through with the Kennedys, now we have this lugnut to listen to, heavens forbid.

    November 23, 2009 09:30 pm at 9:30 pm |
  15. WrongKindofChange

    So is it wrong for the Catholic church to not allow a man to take communion after he has cheated on his wife? Can the Catholic church not stop someone from taking communion if they have murdered another human in cold blood? Then why is it wrong for them to not allow a man to take communion when he supports abortion which is clearly against the teachings of all Christian churches including Catholics? A sin is a sin.

    November 23, 2009 09:30 pm at 9:30 pm |
  16. Obama = Abortion

    You cannot be both Catholic, and pro-abortion. If Kennedy cannot decide between his faith and his politics, he has no faith.

    November 23, 2009 09:33 pm at 9:33 pm |
  17. Preyear

    Bishop Tobin does not have a heaven or hell to put anyone in, so he should allow God to do the judging. He needs to stick to preaching and stay out of politics. Congressman Kennedy is not having an abortion, he is allowing women to have the free will to make their own decision and be accountable to their God. You will...that thing that God gives you. He even knows that with free, we are going to make mistakes...that is why Jesus hung, bled and died. Helloooo!

    November 23, 2009 09:36 pm at 9:36 pm |
  18. Citizen

    It's time for real separation of church and state, to correct the dangerous backslide occuring now that started over the past 8 years. The Catholic church should focus it's energies on helping the poor, aka actually practicing what it preaches. This is why it's currently viewed as irrelevant, and losing members in droves.

    November 23, 2009 09:41 pm at 9:41 pm |
  19. T'SHA from Virginia

    So is it a sin to be a Catholic and believe in pro-CHOICE – even though you would NEVER have an abortion because you believe it's wrong and against your practice?

    Wouldn't God judge me if I were a Catholic and got an abortion INSTEAD of punishing me because a friend came to me upset because she is pregnant and tells me that she wants an abortion and want me to be by her side. She asks me what should she do and I try to talk her out of it but told her in the end it was her own decision. She decides to have an abortion – I go with her because she is my freind and I am going to be by her side no mattter what – HAVE I SINNED?

    What if my brother, an alter boy when he was young, had a Priest molest him and he went to another Priest and was told "God will forgive you for your sins" and the PRIEST, who molested him, continues to give Holy Communion – AND receive it – n church and what he has done is HIDDEN by the church while my brother suffers for the rest of his life???

    November 23, 2009 09:44 pm at 9:44 pm |
  20. Fitz in Texas

    Bishop Thomas Tobin says...."How can you claim to be a Catholic and
    support abortion."

    Well, that's easy.....The name Kennedy and the word hypocrite goes hand in hand. All about votes for the Kennedy clan.

    November 23, 2009 09:47 pm at 9:47 pm |
  21. xavier

    I say all those divorced should be denied communion at church. Talk about making a mockery of marriage. In the eyes of God you are never divorced, so every time you re-marry you are committing adultery. I am just being fair here, what is good for Kennedy should be good for the rest.

    November 23, 2009 10:05 pm at 10:05 pm |
  22. Jerry

    You really need to worry about 5 of the SCUS has five justice who are
    Catholic , so will anything that goes against the church get a fair hearing?

    November 23, 2009 10:07 pm at 10:07 pm |
  23. The people of faith believe God made all creation, seen and unseen. We believe God chose to walk the earth as one of us named Jesus 'Jehovah, the Lord is Salvation' absorbed the Holy Sprit became the Christ, The Annointed ONe to tell of God's love and to

    I am definately pro life...but in my church we would never deny ANYONE the scaraments....judgement is God's alone...we can warn..but what good does it do to deny anyone the body of makes no sense to me. The Lord wants no one lost and our role as Christians is to give that love..not build walls but tear them down.

    November 23, 2009 10:09 pm at 10:09 pm |
  24. ricky

    I have not found 1 person who lives by the 100% all or nothing religion beside Muslin extremist. The church is not GOD and GOD would not turn anyone way for his beliefs!... Maybe they should start paying TAXes if they want to be so judgmental!

    November 23, 2009 10:20 pm at 10:20 pm |
  25. bobster

    leave the church!....go athiest! and they claim to be love and understanding, hypacrats, right wing nuts!why do you have to belong to a church, leave the crutch at home!

    November 23, 2009 10:28 pm at 10:28 pm |
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