Abortion, a Kennedy and a Catholic communion conundrum
A new row has flared in the Catholic ranks of the U.S. abortion wars, this one involving a member of America’s most famous Catholic political family and a bishop. Congressman Patrick Kennedy, the son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, has claimed that Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin has slapped a communion ban on him for his support for abortion rights.
(PHOTO: Patrick Kennedy speaks at funeral of his father, Senator Edward Kennedy, 29 Aug 2009/Brian Snyder)
“The bishop instructed me not to take communion and said that he has instructed the diocesan priests not to give me communion,” the Rhode Island Democrat was quoted as saying this week in the Providence Journal.
On the pages of the same paper the bishop fired back, asserting that it was a “request,” not an instruction. “If he took it as an instruction, so be it, but it was really a request,” the bishop was quoted as saying.
The request was apparently made back in 2007 but the trigger for the most recent twist in the saga seems to have been Kennedy’s comments to CNSNews.com in October that the Catholic Church was fanning “the flames of dissent and discord” by insisting that healthcare reform legislation include explicit bans on funding for abortion.
Such a provision was included in the House version of the bill that narrowly passed but not in the one under consideration in the Senate. The stakes could hardly be higher as an overhaul of America’s healthcare system is President Barack Obama’s top domestic agenda.
(Photo: Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry at the Charles Street AME Church in Boston, 4 April 2004/Jim Bourg)
The whole issue has highlighted divisions in the U.S. Democratic Party, which has regained control of Congress and expanded its majorities there in the last two election cycles by widening its tent to include moderates and conservatives. Some of these new Democrats oppose abortion rights, making them an awkward fit in a party that has long supported them.
This also seems to be a never-ending dilemma for the U.S. Catholic Church and one which haunted John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004 — should it distribute communion or not to public figures who support abortion rights, given the Church’s teaching that abortion is the taking of innocent life and therefore a grave evil.
Holy Communion is a sacrament of the Catholic Church and denying it to a Catholic is a rare and serious step. Even the U.S. bishops are divided over whether to do this. Those who favor denial say the Church has to take a public stand against politicians who ignore its teachings. Those opposed to it say denial involves them in political fights that have no place at Mass.
We asked back in August if Teddy Kennedy should have a Catholic funeral. Many who did not think he deserved one based their view on his support for abortion rights. Many who thought he deserved such a ceremony pointed to his advancement of causes championed by Catholic social thinking.
This leads to a question about the consistency of views in the U.S. Catholic Church leadership. The Church opposes abortion and therefore liberal politicians who support abortion rights risk being refused communion. The Church supports a healthcare overhaul that would make the system more equitable. So does a conservative Catholic politician who opposes this reform risk being denied communion for ignoring the Catholic social teaching that justifies it?
(Photo: Anti-abortion protesters outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, 16 June 2004/Jeff Christensen)
How about support for capital punishment, which the Vatican says is unjustified in almost all possible cases, or for war? In the build-up to the Iraq war, Pope John Paul was so opposed to the plan that he sent a personal envoy to Washington to argue against it. Did bishops threaten any measures against Catholic politicians who energetically supported that war despite Vatican opposition?
Years ago in Britain, the Church of England used to be called “the Tory party at prayer.” Does this apparent difference in treatment of liberal and conservative Catholics risk making the U.S. Church into one section of “the Republican Party at prayer?”