Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Bishops at the Cliff: Tobin's Challenge

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 13, 2009

I see three challenges in Bishop Thomas Tobin's public rebuke of Congressman Patrick Kennedy in an open letter on November 12th. With respect to his pro-abortion stance, Kennedy had asserted that “the fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” Bishop Tobin replied, point blank, that this simply is not true. The three challenges I see in this are for Kennedy, Bishop Tobin himself, and the American bishops as a body.

The First Challenge

The first challenge is spelled out in Bishop Tobin’s letter to Kennedy. After describing what it means to be a Catholic, Bishop Tobin writes:

Congressman, I’m not sure whether or not you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic, so let me ask: Do you accept the teachings of the Church on essential matters of faith and morals, including our stance on abortion? Do you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish? Do you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly? Do you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially?
In your letter you say that you “embrace your faith.” Terrific. But if you don’t fulfill the basic requirements of membership, what is it exactly that makes you a Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage?

Then, in response to Kennedy’s dismissal of his differences with the Church as consistent with the Church’s belief in “the existence of an imperfect humanity”, Bishop Tobin counters:

Your rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion falls into a different category – it’s a deliberate and obstinate act of the will; a conscious decision that you’ve re-affirmed on many occasions. Sorry, you can’t chalk it up to an “imperfect humanity.” Your position is unacceptable to the Church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church.

Finally, Bishop Tobin issues the challenge:

I invite you, as your bishop and brother in Christ, to enter into a sincere process of discernment, conversion and repentance. It’s not too late for you to repair your relationship with the Church, redeem your public image, and emerge as an authentic “profile in courage,” especially by defending the sanctity of human life for all people, including unborn children.

The Providence Bishop’s wording of this challenge is about as strong as it can possibly be without formally excommunicating Kennedy, and one wonders whether that additional possibility is looming. In 1947, Cardinal Joseph Ritter of St. Louis publicly threatened to excommunicate any Catholic who filed suit to stop his plan to integrate the Catholic school system there. And in 1962, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans actually did excommunicate three Catholics, including a judge, when they refused to desist from directly opposing the integration of the Catholic schools in that city. So there is precedent, even in modern America, for the use of excommunication against public figures in socio-political disputes which touch the Church’s teaching and mission.

The Second Challenge

Whether or not he intends to proceed to excommunication if Kennedy persists, Bishop Tobin has drawn a far sharper line concerning what it means to be a Catholic than the American bishops have generally been willing to draw since the early 1960’s. In doing so, he has also presented himself with a grave challenge, because of the many obstacles he must overcome to succeed in his pastoral duty. Bishop Tobin cannot possibly be blind to this fact, and it makes his willingness to act even more admirable.

This second challenge arises chiefly from the remarkable consistency of the American hierarchy in its unwillingness to exercise ecclesiastical discipline against those who embrace and advance dominant cultural opinions. It is all too easy for Patrick Kennedy to brush aside Bishop Tobin on the basis that Tobin is a sort of loose cannon, that in any other diocese Kennedy’s Catholicism would not be called into doubt. The force of that argument is slowly diminishing as more and more bishops take a harder line on abortion, but surely the number who would actually publicly challenge a Catholic politician’s communion with the Church is still fairly small. Compare, for example, the typical old-school approach taken by Nancy Pelosi’s local ordinary, Archbishop George Niederauer, with that of Bishop Tobin.

In a national atmosphere in which the majority of bishops refuse to challenge wayward politicians publicly, and in which some bishops are still self-evidently embarrassed by and ashamed of those who do, Bishop Tobin has a tough row to hoe. Still, I believe we are inching closer to the day when a good Catholic bishop can be successful in challenging a prominent public Catholic. I say this for three reasons:

  1. Stiffening Episcopal Backbone: The bishops as a group are increasingly concerned that their lack of counter-cultural backbone over the past fifty years has come close to destroying the American Church, including its ability to save souls and influence politics. Episcopal verbal militancy, at least, has recently been increasing year by year, especially on public moral questions. Many bishops are seeking to recover lost ground. Each act of individual courage seems to encourage more bishops to speak out. I believe this trend is unmistakable over the past five years.
  2. Papal Support: The Pope has signaled his concern about the damage to the Church (and to their own souls) caused by pro-abortion politicians. While still head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger attempted to instruct the American bishops on both the evil of pro-abortion voting and the need to withhold communion from pro-abortion politicians. Recently, as Pope, Benedict named Archbishop Raymond Burke—the foremost American proponent of withholding communion under these circumstances—to head the Apostolic Signatura (the highest ecclesiastical court).
  3. Cultural Shift: Times change; the lines are hardening on the life issues; the old sanctities of American politics are eroding. Patrick Kennedy may well wonder why he should be treated any differently from his famous father, the late Edward Kennedy, but the raw human fact is that Patrick Kennedy is not one of three brothers who rose to mythic proportions in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He does not have two brothers who were political martyrs. For better or worse, and for many cultural reasons that defy logical analysis, Patrick is not his father.

The Third Challenge

And these are not his father’s times. There is a strong national sense, I think, that the death of Edward signaled the end of the Kennedy era, an era brought to a rather shameful but still obvious close by Edward’s grandly disturbing Catholic funeral, in which everything was granted to him—as it always had been—except the Cathedral. Moreover, quite apart from whether they possess the courage to confront pro-abortion politicians publicly, it is fairly clear that the majority of Catholic bishops now have significant misgivings over how they’ve handled just about everything in the past. This is evident in many ways, not least in the current revision of the Missal to achieve greater sacrality, despite the last gasps of the old guard. It may seem odd to mention the liturgy here, and it is but a single instance of a larger trend, but liturgy and life are closely connected, and the bishops’ actions with regard to the former generally signal shifts in their approach to the latter.

And so we perceive the third challenge, the challenge to the members of the American hierarchy as a whole. They are now challenged to recognize that they are at a tipping point, and to commit themselves decisively to a new direction. Indeed, it is possible that many of them decided the tipping point had come in the Stupak-Pitts amendment to eliminate abortion coverage from the health care bill. Catholics could hardly fail to notice how long it took the bishops to develop a clear and consistent public strategy on health care. Beginning with their nearly unqualified support, proceeding through their herculean effort to portray existing Federal health care proposals positively while also clarifying the related moral issues, and ending in determined opposition at the eleventh hour, the bishops seem to have rather self-consciously tipped. Only when they actually opposed the bill did they gain the opportunity to change it, and when Representative Bart Stupak became powerful enough to bring Nancy Pelosi to the table, it now turns out that he brought the bishops with him.

If this tipping point is recognized, Bishop Tobin may well have the clout to deal successfully with Patrick Kennedy. It seems clear, at any rate, that Patrick Kennedy does not have the clout to deal with Bishop Tobin. If he had, Bishop Tobin would never have gone public, or would have been quickly disgraced and silenced. That in itself is a welcome change from the days of Jack, Bobby and Ted. But in this matter how should we define success? Ideally, Congressman Kennedy would see the light, alter his position, and make his peace with God through the Church. Less than ideally, Congressman Kennedy would either be formally excommunicated or denied communion in a manner which is actually enforced. The greater success lies in an immediate conversion, of course, but the lesser result would also be extraordinarily good for the Church. It would begin the necessary removal of a heavy accumulation of ambiguity, strengthening and solidifying both the Church’s membership and her influence.

However it works out, I am pretty sure we will not see many bishops giving Patrick Kennedy open signs of support. It is true that the bishops have gone to the edge of the cliff, looked down, and espied yet another of the Kennedys at the bottom. But I think the days of jumping off the cliff to join them are gone.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: John J Plick - Nov. 19, 2009 10:25 AM ET USA

    There is more to this than meets the eye... To "excommunicate" Patrick Kennedy would or at least could initiate an entire repudiation of the so-called "social justice" approach of the American Bishops, which to my way of thinking is to appease and influence "Catholic politicians" in order to gain access to the American power base. Instead of taking the hard road and being the Catholic Bishops they are called to be they prefer political manipulation which they classify as "social justice."

  • Posted by: - Nov. 17, 2009 9:02 AM ET USA

    I pray, Michael Rafferty, that you are are being sarcastic and cannot possibly believe what you stated. Bishop Tobin may 'brighten' Kennedy's standing in 'this' world, but this is not the world to which Bishop Tobin's concern is directed.

  • Posted by: Bacolod11252174 - Nov. 17, 2009 2:37 AM ET USA

    Finally the bishops are showing that indeed they have the "spine" that the church has long awaited...the unsheathing of the blade (God's holy WORD)against Catholic pretenders in public life.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Nov. 17, 2009 12:01 AM ET USA

    Still a very dilute lemonade compared to the likes of a "Francis" or a "Dominic..." We should not be focusing on American politics but rather on the true reformation of our own Church... The rest will follow... 2Ch 7:14 If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 16, 2009 5:07 PM ET USA

    Excommunication is a gun loaded with blanks. Shoot me if you will but I won't die. I won't even bleed. Excommunication will not stop me from going to Mass and it won't stop me from receiving Communion. I guess that I won't be scheduled to serve as a lector anymore but I'm quite sure that my financial contributions will still be accepted. Patrick Kennedy has always seemed to be one of the lesser lights in the family constellation. Bishop Tobin will brighten, not dim, his standing.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 14, 2009 4:19 PM ET USA

    Where do I start? God bless our Bishop Tobin, a leader and follower of Christ. The same for Bart Stupak. Jesus picked the best, for this season, anyway. Those who practice their quest in life come to be known for their abilities, such as golfers. If you don't practice at it you can't call yourself a golfer. Membership entails rules,bylaws and dues. Obedience to the basics are most essential even as you read Alinsky's rules: cogent and tough. A good Catholic follows Church teaching. If not, go elsewhere!

  • Posted by: - Nov. 14, 2009 9:12 AM ET USA

    Can you even imagine this sort of thing happening a decade ago? While bad news still flows in plentiful supply, there is now good news nearly every day--sometimes astoundingly good as in this case. Glory be to God!

  • Posted by: 1russellclan9303 - Nov. 14, 2009 1:17 AM ET USA

    Thank God a brave bishop finally is putting someone's back to the wall, it's about time!

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Nov. 13, 2009 12:23 PM ET USA

    Finally! Thanks be to God.