Scandal in Providence

House Lawmakers Work Towards Vote On Health Care Legislation

This has been such a busy time for religious news that we've missed a fairly interesting story coming out of Rhode Island. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy got things going in a fiery Oct. 21 interview with Cybercast News Service. Here's how The Providence Journal wrote up what happened:

Kennedy told an interviewer on Oct. 21, "I can't understand for the life of me how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social-justice issue of our time." He said, "If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health-care reform because it's going to provide health care that is going to keep people alive."

Bishop Tobin shot back that Kennedy "is correct in stating that 'he can't understand. He got that part right." He called Kennedy's comments "irresponsible and ignorant of the facts" and asked for an apology. Later, the bishop followed up with a letter inviting Kennedy to meet for a discussion of the issue.

Without apologizing in so many words, Kennedy accepted the invitation in a letter last week and said his comments "were never intended to slight the church." Kennedy acknowledged that "the church has always stood for health-care reform." He added, "The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy of the church on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic."

Many papers have covered this but it's worth noting that when the Providence Journal writes up the two sides, Kennedy seems to "say" stuff while Tobin "shoots back" or "turns up the heat" or "attacks." From a follow up article headlined "Bishop again attacks Kennedy over abortion stand in health-care reform" (see what I mean? And the next day's story was "R.I. Rep. Patrick Kennedy declines to respond to bishop's attack on abortion issue") we get some more back and forth between the two men. Kennedy says disagreeing with what the church teaches doesn't make him any less of a Catholic. Tobin says:

"Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does," the bishop said in a letter issued just two days after Kennedy was among a group of minority lawmakers who attempted to block tough new restrictions on abortion that were added Saturday to the House's health-care reform legislation.

"Although I wouldn't chose 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," the bishop declared.

You can read Tobin's entire statement here. The thing is that the statement is very calm and measured, but I can see why the reporters are trying to convey the strength of the statement.

It's not that there aren't Catholic bishops who speak clearly, but Tobin is a good example of it. He writes that Catholicism isn't a subjective feeling but membership in a church with clearly defined authorities, doctrines and requirements. He lists these requirements (believing and accepting the teachings of the church, especially on essential matters; belonging to a parish, attending Mass on Sundays, regular sacramental reception, etc.). He says that family ties and cultural heritage are not enough to claim that one embraces his faith. He also explains the difference between wrestling with sins (such as anger or sexual impurity) and a deliberate rejection of church teaching (such as voting for policies that support abortion rights). The former is something every Christian deals with, the latter puts a strain on being part of the Catholic community.

There's a lot to get into and Tobin explains that he's being public in response because Kennedy was public in his disagreement with the church and that confusion on the matter is scandalous.

Scandal is something that St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend wrote about a lot -- and well -- when he covered then-St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke. Burke frequently went public with church teaching when Catholic politicians espoused support for abortion rights or pro-choice public figures were hosted by Catholic institutions. He said that it was his responsibility as archbishop and that remaining silent would be a grave scandal because people would get the idea that he thought their views were acceptable. Catholics define scandal as conduct that incites others to act immorally or do evil. I learned most of this, incidentally, through Townsend's reporting.

The national media have picked up on this story and have focused on the public nature of this debate between Kennedy and Tobin. Here are CNN and the New York Times.

The Associated Press filed a report as well. It's not awful, I guess, but it really doesn't get that this a theological discussion over heavy issues. Instead, it treats it like a dispute between two adults. And, I kid you not, the only outside expert opinion we get is from the Rev. Thomas Reese (aka the Larry Sabato of religion journalism). I'm sure there are other liberal theologians who can be called on other than Reese and reporters should meet a few of them. But they should also try to get a wider variety of perspective, too. tobintalks Anyway, here's a sample from the AP:

Their planned meeting fell apart Monday. The bishop called it a mutual decision, but Kennedy accused Tobin of reneging on an agreement to stop discussing his faith publicly. Tobin responded to Kennedy's letter with a scathing criticism.

"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," Tobin said, who also appealed to the Kennedy family legacy.

"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,'" Tobin said, referring to the title of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book written by John Kennedy.

With so much of the media focusing on the public nature of the debate, it's worth at least explaining the Catholic position on scandal. It's great to mention Kennedy's wish that his public comments on his Catholicity not be responded to publicly. But there should be an explanation -- such as the type that Townsend used to give when covering Burke -- as to why bishops respond to (what they consider) scandal publicly.

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