Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Why Patrick Kennedy attacked his bishop

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 24, 2009

Why did Patrick Kennedy pick a fight with his bishop?

Because that is what happened, you know. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence has refused to back down, but it was the Democratic congressman from Rhode Island who took the first rhetorical shot—and then twice loosed a new salvo just as things were beginning to calm down.

To review: In late October, Rep. Kennedy charged that the American Catholic bishops were creating "discord and dissent" within the Church by opposing health-care legislation that would allow abortion subsidies. "I can't understand for the life of me," the congressman told reporters. Bishop Tobin replied that Kennedy's outburst was "irresponsible and ignorant of the facts." Obviously irked by the public attack—and, no doubt, by Kennedy's disingenuous claim that the bishops' motives were obscure—the bishop demanded an apology. That was Round One.

After a few days of calm, Bishop Tobin said that he would like to meet with Patrick Kennedy—who is, after all, a member of his flock in Rhode Island—to explain the "clear and consistent" stand of the Catholic hierarchy and the moral responsibilities of Catholic legislators. Kennedy initially agreed to a meeting, and a conversation was scheduled for November 12.

Meanwhile Kennedy voted against the Stupak amendment, which would have stripped abortion funding from the health-care reform bill, and announced that “the fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” That began Round Two. Bishop Tobin, again refusing to let Kennedy's claim stand unchallenged, wrote a column in his diocesan newspaper explaining that a real Catholic (as opposed to someone who merely poses as a Catholic) accepts the teachings of the Church. "Congressman, I’m not sure whether or not you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic," the bishop wrote.

That rebuke evidently stung. Kennedy announced that his meeting with the bishop had been postponed, with no new date announced, and said that he was "disconcerted" that Bishop Tobin had spoken out in public about his relationship to the Church—although it was Kennedy himself who had now raised the issue twice. Thus ended Round Two.

Round Three began on November 20, and again the first provocative statement came from Rep. Kennedy. He told reporters: "The bishop instructed me not to take Communion and said that he has instructed the diocesan priests not to give me Communion.” Within hours, thousands of news stories had flashed across the world, announcing that Bishop Tobin had escalated the dispute. Only later did it emerge that the bishop had given his admonition to Kennedy nearly three years ago, in a private message. Bishop Tobin had not intended that message to become public. (Nor had he given any order to diocesan priests; that part of Kennedy's complaint was apparently the lawmaker's own embellishment of the facts.) For the third time in less than a month, it was Rep. Kennedy who had launched the rhetorical offensive.

Still, to his credit, Bishop Tobin is still not backing down. He expressed regret that his personal message to Kennedy had become public, stressing that it was a personal, pastoral communication. But he did not apologize for the substance of the message. Speaking to reporters in Providence yesterday, the bishop repeated that the congressman's public stands were incompatible with the Catholic faith, and said that if Kennedy presented himself from Communion at a Mass he was celebrating, he "probably would not" administer the Blessed Sacrament to him.

That's the way things stand today. So again: Why did Patrick Kennedy pick a fight with his bishop?

Well, why does any politician usually release a public statement? To gain a political advantage.

Rep. Kennedy is a partisan Democrat, locked in a tense struggle over a major piece of legislation. Moreover, he is the son of another legislator, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, for whom this issue—health-care reform—was a lifelong goal. So Rep. Kennedy is fighting not only for his party's goal but also for his father's legislative legacy. The Catholic bishops have become involved in the public debate on this issue, and their involvement endangers the passage of the bill Kennedy backs. So Congressman Kennedy has done his best to soften up the opposition by putting the Catholic hierarchy on the defensive.

Virtually alone among the thousands of journalists who have commented on the Kennedy-Tobin dispute, the perceptive John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter saw things clearly. After acknowledging the possibility that Kennedy's most recent outburst was an unrehearsed answer to a reporter's question, Allen continued:

On the other hand, Kennedy has a deep reservoir of political savvy swimming in his gene pool, and it’s impossible not to notice that there are at least two clear political objectives to be served by revealing Tobin’s disciplinary act now:
• It’s reminder that the bishops don’t speak for a unified Catholic bloc when it comes to abortion policy. The political translation is that a legislator doesn’t have to worry about losing all 67 million Catholic votes in America if they don’t back the bishops’ line.?
• It creates a PR headache for the bishops, because it shifts the terms of debate from the merits of the pro-life argument to the bishops’ tactics in suppressing dissent.

Exactly. Patrick Kennedy knows—indeed his family's political history testifies—that for the space of an entire generation, Catholic bishops have been reluctant to exert any discipline on Catholic politicians. As a result most Catholic politicians—and most Catholic voters—no longer believe that Church teachings should have any influence on their political choices.

Patrick Kennedy knows, too, that the stand taken by Bishop Tobin is unpopular. Liberal journalists can be counted upon to attack a Catholic bishop who takes such as stand—as television commentator Chris Matthews attacked Bishop Tobin. Public opinion polls can be taken to reinforce the well-documented fact that most self-identified Catholics disagree with their bishops. Still more important, Kennedy knows that even the American episcopate is not united on this question; most of America's Catholic bishops will not rally to the Bishop Tobin's defense. And sure enough, since this very public dispute began a month ago, very few other bishops have bothered to voice even tepid support for their embattled brother in Providence.

This silence of the American hierarchy, which has continued for so many years, has had devastating effects on the public influence of the Catholic Church. A generation ago, Catholic politicians respected and feared the bishops, and avoided even a hint of public conflict with their Church. Not so today. After years of backpedaling, trying to avoid conflict, the bishops find that politicians are attacking them.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Massachusetts, where Patrick Kennedy was raised. This week the four Democratic candidates who are competing for the seat vacated by the death of Patrick's father met for a televised debate. The most noteworthy aspect of that debate&mdashl;as evidenced by the headline coverage in the Boston Globe-- was the fierce competition among the candidates to be most strident in criticizing Bishop Tobin in particular, and the Catholic Church in general. Three of the four Democratic candidates proudly proclaim themselves as Catholics. (The fourth, who boasts of his Italian immigrant ancestry, identifies himself as Episcopalian.) Yet all four unambiguously denounced the Catholic Church's stand on abortion, homosexuality, and embryo research. One of the Catholic contenders, Congressman Michael Capuano, went on to say that the Church is also wrong to bar women from priestly ministry, and vowed that if a bishop told him not to receive Communion he would defy that order.

Congressman Patrick Kennedy made a shrewd political calculation. He thought that by attacking Bishop Tobin—that is, by attacking his own Church, his own faith—he could help recapture the Democratic momentum toward successful passage of the health-care reform bill. Thus far his strategy seems to be working.

What would it take to turn the tide—to ensure that an attack on the Catholic Church is not a successful political gambit? That question is easy to answer: It would take solidarity among Catholics.

We lay Catholics need to make it clear—to our friends and neighbors, to our political representatives, to our local newspapers, and (if the occasion arises) to pollsters—that we support Bishop Tobin's stand. More important, we need to encourage our own bishops to join Bishop Tobin in an unapologetic public defense of Catholic teaching.

For my part, I will simply say that on this Thanksgiving Day I plan to whisper a prayer of gratitude for the witness of this brave bishop in Providence, who has finally done what American Catholic bishops should have been doing—but haven't—for the past 35 years.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Nov. 28, 2009 10:13 AM ET USA

    Amen, Phil! Pray God's life changing grace upon "Catholic" politicians, and all politicians, that they might actually serve the common good and their constituents by recognizing and protecting human dignity... At least a few good men are doing just that, sitting in another seat of authority. Pray too for bishops, especially Bishop Tobin, that they may have the strength and courage to serve and sacrifice for the good of their dioceses and for the good of our nation.

  • Posted by: williiam ronner - Nov. 25, 2009 8:18 PM ET USA

    Bishop Tobin ..."has finally done what American Catholic bishops should have been doing...." That says it all. As a saint said a millenium ago, "the floor of hell is paved with the skulls of dead bishops". Either the bishops act now or hell is getting new flooring.

  • Posted by: dannac - Nov. 25, 2009 3:23 PM ET USA

    "Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid." — Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8 (ca. 100 AD).

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Nov. 25, 2009 12:47 PM ET USA

    If the rest of the bishops take the same courageous stand as Bishop Tobin, the Church will get smaller, but it will be holier. Big Tent Catholicism doesn't work, and it leads to the loss of many souls as evidenced by the attacks on this good Bishop and the Church by "Catholics."

  • Posted by: Ken - Nov. 25, 2009 12:51 AM ET USA

    Everyone who reads this article - contact your bishop TODAY and ask him to publically support Bishop Tobin. Jeff is right - just reading about this and hoping for more bishops to take this type of stand is not enough. We, the lay Catholics, must act. Contact your bishop today!

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Nov. 24, 2009 8:15 PM ET USA

    "Did God really tell you not to eat of any tree in the garden?" said the snake. "No, but he said not to eat of the tree in the center--NOT EVEN TO TOUCH IT," said the woman. Making the "boss" sound unreasonable and tyrannical is an old tactic, isn't it. And, just for the record, the Stupak amendment would still allow "exceptions" to be aborted. And many of us bastards (yes, I was born illegitimate and was adopted) were conceived in what was very close to or clearly was rape.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 24, 2009 7:12 PM ET USA

    It's obvious these political clowns have disowned their faith. They refuse to call themselves anything but Catholic. They refuse Her teachings and Bishop's who are earnest in re-training them back into Christ's and the Apostles road to salvation. They are crystallized in their thinking/beliefs. We as Catholics need to be as such only in the Catholic direction. Pray for those Bishops who have wandered. Pray as Fatima has asked....we obviously have not.