Catholic in Practice and not just in Name, The Anchor, November 20, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
November 20, 2009

After the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, we argued that among the lessons needing to be learned from the history of the Church’s interaction with “pro-choice” Catholic politicians on Capitol Hill is that an education-alone approach has proven a total failure. The eloquent and clear teaching documents from the popes, the bishops’ conference and many individual bishops about the dignity of human life, the evil of abortion, and the duties of Catholic politicians with respect to human life have seemed to have had no impact on “pro-choice” Catholic politicians. Not only has there not been one “success story” over the past three decades of a “pro-choice” Catholic politician’s becoming pro-life, but rather, many of them have just grown bolder, with several Catholics in Congress having become the most radical proponents of abortion on Capitol Hill.

We argued in September that since history tells us that “pro-choice” Catholic politicians cannot be depended on to apply papal and episcopal teaching statements to themselves in conscience, a new strategy is needed. We proposed that the Church consider anew the type of one-on-one instruction that Jesus describes in the Gospel (Mt 18:15-18), traditionally called fraternal correction, in which individual “pro-choice” Catholic politicians would be helped to see that the teaching of the Church on the dignity of human life, the evil of abortion, and the duties of Catholic politicians affords no exceptions in their case. Such correction would be aimed at helping them to recognize that if they truly wish to be and call themselves a faithful Catholic, then they can no longer support the destruction of innocent human life in the womb.

An example of what this fraternal correction looks like is presently ongoing in the state of Rhode Island. It is notable — considering that Senator Kennedy, through his enormous influence and stature, was in many ways the progenitor of scores of other “pro-choice” Catholic politicians — that the recipient of this correction is Senator Kennedy’s son, Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI). Congressman Kennedy’s position on abortion can be viewed as the confused fruit of the scandalous incoherence of his father’s generation with regard to the faith and the sanctity of human life. Since that scandal was inadequately addressed and corrected, the confusion in the second generation is much greater than in the first. That’s why the efforts of Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin to remedy that confusion are relevant not merely to Congressman Kennedy, but to the whole Church.

The Congressman’s problems began at the end of October when, during an interview on health care reform, he charged, “The Catholic Church is doing nothing but fanning the flames of dissent and discord by taking the position that it will oppose the health-care reform bill under consideration in Congress unless it is amended to explicitly prohibit funding of abortion.” In case that were not sufficiently hyperbolic — accusing the Church of “causing dissent” from the health care pseudo-gospel rather than noting his own dissent from the teaching of the Gospel of Life — he continued by echoing his father’s claim that changing the health care structure rather than stopping the killing of innocent human beings is the most important social injustice issue facing us. “I can’t understand for the life of me,” he said, “how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social justice issue of our time, where the very dignity of the human person is being respected by the fact that we’re caring and giving health care to the human person.'” He accuses the Church, not himself, of being hypocrites: “‘You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life saving health care? I thought they were pro-life?”

Bishop Tobin was quick to respond, in the straight-talking style for which he is becoming well-known. He called Kennedy’s statement about the Church’s position “irresponsible and ignorant of the facts,” pronounced him a “disappointment to the Catholic Church and to the citizens of the State of Rhode Island” and prayed that he “will find a way to provide more effective and morally responsible leadership.” Tobin later wrote the Congressman to schedule a meeting to discuss Kennedy’s position on abortion. After a meeting was set up for last week, it was cancelled, reportedly because Bishop Tobin refused to accept Congressman Kennedy’s demand that the meeting be kept private. Such a request on the Congressman’s part was unreasonable because the purpose of the meeting was not for the Congressman to go to confession or receive confidential spiritual direction but to remedy his erroneous public statements and scandalous public track record on abortion, both of which require a public response.

After the meeting was canceled, Kennedy wrote a public letter to the bishop that asserted, among other things, “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” That claim solicited a response from Bishop Tobin, in which he focused on what it really means to be a Catholic, not just in name but in practice. Because he hoped that his words “might be instructive to other Catholics, including those in prominent positions of leadership,” he released the letter publicly.

The bishop of Providence began by responding to Kennedy’s statement that his disagreement with some aspects of the Catholic faith does not make him less Catholic. “That sentence certainly caught my attention,” Bishop Tobin said, “and deserves a public response, lest in go unchallenged and lead others to believe that it’s true.”

Disagreement with the hierarchy on some issues does make someone less of a Catholic, Bishop Tobin clarified, because “when someone rejects the teachings of the Church, especially on a grave matter, a life-and-death issue like abortion, it certainly does diminish their ecclesial communion, their unity with the Church.” After quoting Canon Law, the Catechism, and a Vatican document on Catholics in political life to emphasize that Catholics are called to live in accord with, and not prescind from, the social and moral teaching of the Church,” he continued, “There’s lots of canonical and theological verbiage there, Congressman, but what it means is that if you don’t accept the teachings of the Church your communion with the Church is flawed, or in your own words, makes you ‘less of a Catholic.’”

Since “being a Catholic has to mean something,” Bishop Tobin said that it minimally signifies “that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.” After calling on Congressman Kennedy to affirm that he lives by these “basic requirements,” he adds that if he doesn’t follow them, “What is it exactly that makes you a Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage?,” with the implication being that there clearly is a difference between a Catholic who lives according to his baptismal promises and one who doesn’t. The latter is, to use the Congressman’s expression, “less of a Catholic.”

Bishop Tobin noted that Congressman Kennedy’s “rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion” is not a light matter, but a “deliberate and obstinate act of the will, a conscious decision you’ve reaffirmed on many occasions” that is “unacceptable to the Church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church.” Support for abortion, in other words, does make one less of a Catholic.

He concluded his letter by inviting Congressman Kennedy, “as your bishop and brother in Christ, to enter into a sincere process of discernment, conversion and repentance,” offering his help to that end and reminding him that “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.”

Let us pray that Congressman Kennedy, and many other pro-choice Catholic politicians, respond to this instruction and invitation by valuing their Catholic faith more than they do the abortion lobby.