Representative Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island is having a very public feud with the Bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, Bishop Thomas Tobin. In 2007 Tobin asked Kennedy to refrain from taking Holy Communion because of Kennedy’s stance on abortion which is contrary to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. In October, Kennedy was critical of Roman Catholic Bishops because he believed their concerns about abortion was potentially going to derail health care reform.
Most recently, Kennedy has stated that Tobin told priests in the Providence Diocese (which covers the totality of Rhode Island) to not serve Kennedy Holy Communion. Tobin has claimed that he has made no such order.
Bishop Tobin said, in part, “"The point is, because of his obstinate ... public support of abortion, which is clearly contrary to an essential teaching of the church of a matter of critical morality ... he is then not properly prepared to receive Holy Communion, No one has a right to receive Holy Communion."
We seem to be witnessing Thomas and Patrick's not so excellent adventure.
There is lots of stuff in this and this is a difficult scenario in which to deal.
First, Bishop Tobin has every right to make this determination. A Roman Catholic Bishop has the right and responsibility to set the rules and guidelines within his Diocese. He is ultimately the person in charge. The priests in his Diocese have all taken vows of obedience to his office (Office of Bishop) and are obligated, by their vows, to obey him. Whether one wants to quibble with how they feel about this is not particular relevant. This is how the Roman Catholic Church is organized and functions.
Additional, Rep. Kennedy has the responsibility to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States. He took an oath to do this and is legally obligated to do so. Abortion is legal and he feels that he has an obligation to uphold the law. Again, we might quibble with this, but he has an obligation to uphold the law. If abortion was not legal, the argument changes.
If I were going to question both of them my first line of questioning with Bishop Tobin would be to ask him why he is only holding people’s feet to the fire on the abortion issue? Pope John Paul II was very clear that he found capital punishment to be immoral. I have not seen any Bishop ban any politician from taking Holy Communion because they were pro-capital punishment. In terms of war, the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to wars that are not ‘just wars.’ Great questions surround both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Roman Catholic Bishops, for the most part, have not make a major issue of this with either President Bush or President Obama. There are, obviously, many other ethical issues, but why is Tobin only tackling abortion?
As for Kennedy, I’m almost wondering why now? Tobin first said this in 2007 and has not really added anything to this. There is no suggestion that Kennedy has been denied Holy Communion in Roman Catholic congregations. He might not be taking Holy Communion, or he might not be. I am not sure what he is doing. I strongly suspect that if he attends a Roman Catholic Church in Rhode Island, and goes up to take Holy Communion, he receives it. From what I gather, Tobin didn’t so much ban Kennedy as tell him that he ‘ought not’ take Holy Communion because of his convictions.
I have several thoughts.
My first thought is this. Tobin is a politically inclined Bishop and Kennedy is a politician. Tobin’s actions are not remotely indicative of most Roman Catholic Bishops who are serving their Dioceses and not getting their names in the paper a great deal. Most are too pastorally inclined to make the kinds of statements Tobin has been making. Kennedy, on the other hand, is a politician. He is in a political party that strongly upholds abortion rights and he is going to be loyal to his party first. If he sees a political opportunity to make a name for himself by embarrassing his Bishop, he might just do so. My point is, obviously that both of these guys are very politically motivated and will do what they need to do to get attention.
My greater thought, however, is this. This is the Table of the Lord we are talking about. I live by the adage that it is the Table of the LORD. The LORD’S table. I disagree with Bishop Tobin is that I do believe that everyone has a right to come to the Lord’s Table because it is the Lord’s Table and no one has a right to bar anyone from it, for any reason, at any time. I recognize I state this as a United Church of Christ minister, following the beliefs of our denomination. But my point is very clear. I have a hard time banning anyone from the table. Ever.
Regardless of one’s politics or theological background or beliefs, however, I truly hate to see that the news story of the day is about a battle for God’s Table. I fear we are all a bit tarnished by this.