The public disagreement between Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D) of Rhode Island and a Providence bishop about the receiving of communion echoes larger divisions within the Roman Catholic Church regarding healthcare reform.
Mr. Kennedy said Sunday that Bishop Thomas Tobin instructed him not to take communion in 2007 because he has consistently voted in favor of abortion rights. Kennedy says the bishop further instructed the diocesan priests not to give him communion as well.
But Bishop Tobin says his direction to Kennedy was merely his spiritual guidance – not a command. In a statement released Sunday, the bishop said that he wrote to Kennedy advising him, "In light of the Church's clear teaching, and your consistent actions … I believe it is inappropriate for you to be receiving Holy Communion and I now ask respectfully that you refrain from doing so."
Tobin also told the Providence Journal that he never instructed the priests of Rhode Island not to give Kennedy communion: “If I had told 300 priests of the diocese in any format not to give communion to Kennedy or anybody else, you think that would have remained confidential?”
The disagreement is representative of the larger tensions between the Catholic church and other Catholic lawmakers over abortion measures in the healthcare reform bill.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops called for members of the House to support the Stupak-Pitts amendment during debate on the healthcare reform bill. The amendment would prohibit federal funds from paying for any part of a health insurance plan that covers abortions.
Rep. Michael Capuano (D) of Massachusetts, explaining his decision to vote against the amendment, told the Boston Globe, “I treat [Church leaders] with probably more respect, more deference. But they don’t tell me how to vote.”
The clash between Kennedy and leaders of the Catholic church, however, has been pointed at times. He accused the church of “fanning the flames of discord and dissent” with its position against any healthcare reform bill that allowed federal funds to be used for abortions.
This is not the first time the church has contemplated what to do with Catholic politicians whose political platforms don’t align with church tenets.
In 2004, Sen. John Kerry – a pro-abortion rights Catholic – was a candidate for president. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – who has since become Pope Benedict XVI – wrote a memorandum which defined the principles under which bishops or other ministers could deny communion to Catholic politicians who consistently promote legal abortion.
A Catholic politician manifests “formal cooperation” in abortion and euthanasia by “consistently campaigning and voting for permissive … laws,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in a memo, as reported by the Catholic News Service.
In that case, the politician's pastor should “meet with him, instructing him about the church's teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist,” Ratzinger said.
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