BY STAFF REPORTER
AN AMERICAN bishop has asked a Catholic Congressman if he actually understands what it means “to be a Catholic” in an escalating row over healthcare reform.
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, questioned whether Congressman Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Edward Kennedy, could really describe himself as Catholic since his stance on abortion was “unacceptable to the Church” and “scandalous to many of our members”.
Bishop Tobin made the comments in his “Without a Doubt” column in The Rhode Island Catholic, his diocesan newspaper.
He was responding to a letter Mr Kennedy sent to the bishop in which he stated: “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy of the Church on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” The bishop wrote: “Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does. Although I wouldn’t choose those particular words, 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: “The bishop said the principle was based on Scripture and Church tradition and had been made more explicit in many documents.
The exchange of comments began when Mr Kennedy criticised the US bishops for threatening to oppose healthcare reform unless the legislation banned the use of federal funds to cover abortion.
In an interview Mr Kennedy said their stance was “fanning the flames of dissent and discord”.
Bishop Tobin asked for an apology from Mr Kennedy and requested a meeting, which was eventually scheduled for Thursday last week. But the meeting has been postponed and a statement from the Providence diocese said: “Bishop Tobin remains hopeful he can meet Congressman Kennedy in a personal and pastoral setting in the very near future.” Earlier this month House members voted to include strict language prohibiting funding for most abortions in the Affordable Health Care for America Act.
They passed the full measure in a 220-215 vote, moving the legislation on to the Senate, which is expected to take up debate on its own healthcare bill later in November.
Mr Kennedy voted in favour of the overall proposal but against the abortion amendment.
In his column, which he wrote as an open letter to Mr Kennedy, Bishop Tobin said that since their correspondence on abortion and healthcare reform had been made public, he had decided to share a few reflections about Mr Kennedy’s faith publicly.
He said he was not sure if Mr Kennedy fulfilled “the basic requirements of being a Catholic”, saying that Catholicism involved much more than being baptised into the faith, family ties or cultural heritage.
He also called Mr Kennedy’s “rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion... a deliberate and obstinate act of the will” and something which “absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church”.
Bishop Tobin invited the Congressman “to enter into a sincere process of discernment, conversion and repentance”, and said he would be honoured to assist him in any way he could as the Congressman “travels the road of faith”.
The Providence Journal news paper reported that Mr Kennedy had refused to respond in detail to the bishop’s comments, except to say he found it “very disconcerting” that the bishop would not keep a discussion of his faith private.
Mr Kennedy also said he has sought the sacraments of Reconciliation and Communion from his pastor, whom he would not name. When asked if he had been threatened with a denial of Communion or other sanctions, the Congressman said he would discuss this with the bishop “and ideally, hopefully, we will keep it between us”.