I have neglected¹ the hot topic of a week ago, Representative Patrick Kennedy’s (D-RI) complaint that the Bishop of Providence, Thomas Tobin, had barred him from receiving communion due to Mr Kennedy’s support for abortion, a position completely contrary to that of the Catholic Church of which the congressman says he is part.
The story naturally had two sides, Mr Kennedy saying that he had been barred from receibing the Eucharist and that Bishop Tobin had instructed the priests of the Diocese of Providence not to allow Mr Kennedy to receive the host if he did present himself for communion.
Kennedy: Barred from Communion
12:05 PM EST on Monday, November 23, 2009
By John E. Mulligan, Journal Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — 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.
Kennedy said the bishop had explained the penalty by telling him “that I am not a good practicing Catholic because of the positions that I’ve taken as a public official,” particularly on abortion. He declined to say when or how Bishop Tobin told him not to take the sacrament. And he declined to say whether he has obeyed the bishop’s injunction.
Bishop Tobin responded to Mr Kennedy’s claims by noting that he had sent the congressman a letter to this effect 2½ years ago, said that he had no intention of making a personal pastoral concern public — and the story became public only because Representative Kennedy brought it up — and the Bishop stated that while he had advised Mr Kennedy that he was not receiving the Eucharist validly as long as he was supporting abortion, that he did not instruct the priests of the diocese to refuse the congressman communion.
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.”
Many of our friends on the left were totally incensed — pun intended. Pam Spaulding was upset, as were most of her commenters, though few seemed to understand much about Catholicism. Our good friends at the Delaware Liberal managed to get it wrong, too If a pro-abortion politician should be requested not to receibe communion due to that position, they asked — generally paraphrasing many commenters — why shouldn’t conservative Catholics who support capital punishment or who voted for the war in Iraq or who oppose the institution of some form of nationalized health care? Mr Kennedy raised a similar question himself:
In an October interview about the opposition of the nation’s bishops to any health-care overhaul that did not include a strict ban on federal subsidies for abortion, Kennedy called into question the “pro-life” credentials of the churchmen. Health care for millions of uninsured is at stake, he said. Bishop Tobin shot back with a sharply worded statement, noting that the bishops are staunch and longtime supporters of reforming the health-care system. He said, however, that the bishops will not support a health-care bill that fails to include a ban on taxpayer subsidy of the procedure.
There’s a great site called Get Religion that Sharon informed me about. Get Religion’s purpose isn’t to discuss religion and theology — though some of that happens there — but to discuss media coverage of religion. Whenever there’s a news story about religion, that’s the source I check first, because they know their subject and get it right.
Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
Apart from an individuals’s judgement about his worthiness to present himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, the minister of Holy Communion may find himself in the situation where he must refuse to distribute Holy Communion to someone, such as in cases of a declared excommunication, a declared interdict, or an obstinate persistence in manifest grave sin (cf. can. 915).
Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his 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.
If there is a shortcoming with Mrs Hemingway’s article, it is that she didn’t quote enough from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s instructions. She explained the differences between abortion and euthanasia with capital punishment and war, but she left it there. The very next paragraph states:
When “these precautionary measures have not had their effect or in which they were not possible,” and the person in question, with obstinate persistence, still presents himself to receive the Holy Eucharist, “the minister of Holy Communion must refuse to distribute it” (cf. Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts Declaration “Holy Communion and Divorced, Civilly Remarried Catholics” , nos. 3-4). This decision, properly speaking, is not a sanction or a penalty. Nor is the minister of Holy Communion passing judgement on the person’s subjective guilt, but rather is reacting to the person’s public unworthiness to receive Holy Communion due to an objective situation of sin.
This paragraph tells us three things:
- The denial of the Eucharist to someone who knowingly persists in grave sin is not something unique to those who support abortion and euthanasia;
- The Eucharistic Minister may have an obligation to refuse communion to someone he knows is approaching to receive the Host invalidly; and
- Bishop Tobin, by not having instructed the priests of his diocese to take this action, was actually a bit easier on Representative Kennedy than he might have been.
The Church, of course, doesn’t like to put its priests in the awkward position of having to refuse, in public, the Host to someone who approaches for communion. How rude would people think that to be. More, in most, parishes, there are lay Eucharistic Ministers who help in the distribution of communion. In my own small parish, when we approach for communion, there are two lines, divided by the right and left aisles of the pews, and while our pastor distributes the Host at the head of one line, a lay Eucharistic Minister distributes at the head of the other. We then turn, right or left, depending upon the side in which we were seated, and meet the next Eucharistic Minister, who holds the cup. If Bishop Tobin didn’t want to put his priests in the uncomfortable position of telling Representative Kennedy no, go sit down, how much less would the individual parish priests want to put laymen in that position?
Representative Kennedy declined to say whether he had obeyed the Bishop’s injunction; I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon, for Monday publication, and by Monday we may have a story concerning whether Mr Kennedy went to Mass today, and if he approached for communion; certainly a smart editor could have assigned that duty to some reporter.
One thing that I think is misunderstood in mostly Protestant America is that the Catholic Church is hierarchical — that much is understood, of course — and that theology and doctrine and dogma come down from the top. To protest against those things is, well, Protestant, a word which springs from the root “protest.” To be Catholic is to subject yourself to a set of beliefs you might not have come to yourself.
The case of former Governor Jim McGreevey (D-NJ) is instructive. The bishops in New Jersey told Governor McGreevey that he should not attempt to receive communion, due to his support for abortion,² an order with which the Governor complied. After Mr McGreevey left office, and his personal issues arose, he decided that he wished to study for the priesthood, and entered the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan, where he is studying to become an Episcopal priest. Whatever his reasons, whether his lifestyle, his status as a (twice) divorced man, or his support for abortion, Mr McGreevey did not believe that he could remain a Roman Catholic. It seems to me that, if Mr Kennedy finds his support for abortion something he believes he must maintain, and he has such a serious disagreement with the Bishop of his home diocese, if he protests, then maybe it’s time for him to acknowledge that he is, indeed, a Protestant.
After all, we have freedom of religion in the United States; the congressman is simply not required to remain in the church in which he was reared, is not required to be in a church at all. If he is bound by the restrictions of the Bishop of Providence, it is because he chooses to try to remain a Roman Catholic.
But such a choice is living a lie. If you wish to be Catholic, you are saying that you are willing to abide by the restrictions of the Catholic Church; if you are not so willing, then it’s time to move on.
¹ – Neglected in that I did start an article on the subject, but it was so poorly written that I decided not to publish it.
² – This occurred before the sex scandal and revelation that Mr McGreevey is homosexual, and thus had nothing to do with that.