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Funeral for Senator Edward Kennedy in Boston

We've had quite a few readers submit stories dealing with Rep. Patrick Kennedy's (D-R.I.) ongoing public battle with Bishop Thomas Tobin. The latest news arose from from this report of the Providence Journal headlined "Kennedy: Barred from Communion." Here's the beginning:

Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has forbidden Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy to receive the Roman Catholic sacrament of Holy Communion because of his advocacy of abortion rights, the Rhode Island Democrat said Friday.

"The bishop instructed me not to take Communion and said that he has instructed the diocesan priests not to give me Communion," Kennedy said in a telephone interview.

That report spread like wildfire so you have this story on FOX News:

Report: Bishop Barred Patrick Kennedy From Communion for Stance on Abortion

The Providence Journal reports on its Web site Sunday that Kennedy said in an interview that Bishop Thomas Tobin issued the order during discussions with the Democratic lawmaker, further escalating a simmering ideological dispute between the two men.

Step beyond the use of the word "ideological" instead of "theological" and let's just look at the use of the word "barred."

The media usually have trouble discussing pastoral admonitions related to communion, but there are basically two canons in Roman Catholic church law that deal with reception of the sacrament. Canon 915 deals with an actual ban on Holy Communion. This is administered by an authority. Canon 916 instructs certain people not to present themselves for Holy Communion. One is enforced by the ministers of the sacrament and one places the burden on the communicant himself.

If you look at Kennedy's actual quote above, it looks like Tobin instructed him not to present himself for communion. But if you look at Kennedy's statement that diocesan priests were told to bar him from communion, that would be a different canon. So which is it?

At first Tobin said he wouldn't discuss the matter with the media -- except to say that he had never told priests to refrain from communing Kennedy. That made it pretty clear that, if anything, we were talking about a Canon 916 issue. And it turns out that is right.

What's fascinating is that this admonition from the bishop came two and a half years ago, in a confidential letter. Note the date:

On February 21, 2007, I wrote to Congressman Kennedy stating: "In light of the Church's clear teaching, and your consistent actions, therefore, I believe it is inappropriate for you to be receiving Holy Communion and I now ask respectfully that you refrain from doing so." My request came in light of the new statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that said, "If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definite teachings on moral issues, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain."

So back to that Fox story -- which is from the Associated Press -- it seems odd to say that Tobin's Feb. 2007 letter further escalates the tension between the two men. The media may want to make this story be about the politics of a particular piece of legislation but it's really about doctrinal matters of much greater importance. And please, AP, don't call Tobin "ultra orthodox" unless you want to call Kennedy "ultra unorthodox" or "ultra liberal."

It's pretty clear, however, that most reporters covering this topic weren't aware of the difference between the two canons. Without understanding that difference, you can't really have a very good discussion of the theological issues at play.

Communion wafers on textured cloth

Back to the Providence Journal article, it actually has some meaty discussion of the importance of the eucharist in the life of a Catholic. But the inability to understand whether Tobin had instructed Kennedy not to present himself for communion as opposed to banning him from the eucharist led to some chunky parts. And, sigh, more quotes from the Larry Sabato of religious journalism. That would be Thomas Reese, Jesuit scholar at the Woodstock Theological Center. While the reporter at the Providence Journal pitches the discipline and response as "ideological," he fails to identify where Reese stands along the ideological spectrum.

And even though Tobin flat-out denied having told diocesan priests anything about communing Kennedy, the story runs with Kennedy's accusation and devotes paragraph after paragraph to the idea. Throughout the article, it confuses denial of communion with admonition to parishioners to not present themselves for communion.

It's somehow less bad than the Associated Press account, however:

Church law permits Tobin to ban Kennedy from receiving Communion within the Diocese of Providence, which covers Rhode Island, but he cannot stop Kennedy from receiving Communion elsewhere. It was unclear whether bishops overseeing Washington and Massachusetts, where Kennedy's family has seaside compound, would issue similar bans.

Kennedy could appeal the decision to officials in the Vatican, but the hierarchy of the Catholic church is unlikely to overturn a bishop, said Michael Sean Winters, a church observer and author of "Left At the Altar: How Democrats Lost The Catholics And How Catholics Can Save The Democrats."

"It's really bad theology," said Winters, who opposes abortion. "You're turning the altar rail into a battle field, a political battlefield no less, and it does a disservice to the Eucharist."

Before reporters run wild with speculation, they really should get their facts straight. Tobin didn't ban Kennedy from communion so what does it mean that Washington and Massachusetts might issue similar ones? And what decision could Kennedy appeal?

And is Winters being interviewed after being given false information about the precise nature of Tobin's pastoral admonition? Probably, but either way I think the best quote from him would come following a follow-up to the quote above. Why is it a disservice for bishops to follow canon law in the manner Tobin is choosing to? That's where a debate about these matters could get interesting.

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