National Catholic Register


Bishop Tobin Asks Kennedy: What Does It Mean to Be Catholic?

BY Tim Drake

| Posted 11/11/09 at 1:54 PM


When Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., originally attacked the Church’s position with regard to the proposed health-care reform bill, Diocese of Providence, R.I., Bishop Thomas Tobin responded and the two agreed to meet.

Congressman Kennedy voted against the Stupak amendment, which barred the use of federal funding for abortion in the House’s health-care reform bill. Kennedy responded that “the fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.”

In response, Bishop Tobin released a public letter to Kennedy in the Rhode Island Catholic, and Kennedy decided to postpone their meeting indefinitely.

“That sentence … raises an important question: What does it mean to be a Catholic?” asks Bishop Tobin, in the letter.

“[W]hen 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,” the letter continues. “This principle is based on the sacred Scripture and Tradition of the Church and is made more explicit in recent documents …

“But let’s get down to a more practical question; let’s approach it this way: What does it mean, really, to be a Catholic? After all, being a Catholic has to mean something, right?

“Well, in simple terms — and here I refer only to those more visible, structural elements of Church membership — being a Catholic means 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.

“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?

n confronting your rejection of the Church’s teaching, we’re not dealing just with “an imperfect humanity” — as we do when we wrestle with sins such as anger, pride, greed, impurity or dishonesty. We all struggle with those things, and often fail.

“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 reaffirmed 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.

“Congressman Kennedy, I write these words not to embarrass you or to judge the state of your conscience or soul. That’s ultimately between you and God. But your description of your relationship with the Church is now a matter of public record, and it needs to be challenged. 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. And if I can ever be of assistance as you travel the road of faith, I would be honored and happy to do so.”

According to The Providence Journal, Kennedy said that he wasn’t going to “dignify with an answer” the bishop’s letter. Kennedy said that he found it “very disconcerting” that Bishop Tobin would not agree to keep private the discussion of his faith.

“The contents between any personal conversation between the bishop and the congressman could certainly remain private,” said Michael Guilfoyle, spokesman for the diocese. “However, the congressman has made this a very public debate, and the bishop is responding to his public comments.”