Apart from that little health care vote in the House of Representatives, the biggest political news over the weekend was the latest back-and-forth between Bishop Thomas Joseph Tobin of Providence and Rep. Patrick Joseph Kennedy (D-RI) over the congressman’s standing in the Catholic Church. On Friday, Kennedy told the Providence Journal-Bulletin that Tobin had “instructed me not to take Communion and said that he has instructed the diocesan priests not to give me Communion.”
On Saturday, the bishop took to his diocesan website to say he was “disappointed and really surprised” that Kennedy had reopened the issue. In a letter he sent to the congressman back in 2007, he had written:
“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.”
On Sunday, Tobin told the AP that while he doesn’t “go out picking these fights,” Kennedy had been attacking the church and behaving “erratically.” Today, the Journal-Bulletin quotes Tobin as characterizing his original missive as a request rather than an instruction, and vigorously denying Kennedy’s claim that he had issued instructions to his priests to withhold Communion. (To the AP, he did allow as how he might have “a little conversation” with any priest who regularly gave the sacrament to Kennedy.) He also said he presumed Kennedy was complying with his wishes.
“If I had found
out that he was regularly violating that request, the next step might
have been more direct. An instruction? A decree? I don’t know what.”
Back in the days when chivalry was in bloom, Catholic hierarchs would discipline a recalcitrant government leader by putting his territory under interdict, barring performance of the sacraments until he shaped up. As recently as 100 years ago, Pope Pius X imposed a 15-day interdict on the northern Italian town of Adria when its citizens mounted a campaign to prevent him from removing their popular bishop. I daresay that Tobin won’t do the same for Rhode Island’s first congressional district (where he himself sits). But he’s evidently prepared to tighten the screws.
What’s a little unclear in all this is why Tobin has been at such pains to emphasize his desire to keep his instruction/request hush-hush. Sure, he’s got his pastoral concern for the state of his lost sheep’s soul. (He’s sincerely praying, he says, for Kennedy’s “conversion and repentance, and for his personal and spiritual well-being.”) But the usual reason for these exercises is that the pro-choice Catholic politician in question is, by his public stand, creating a scandal among the faithful. And so some local prelates feel it incumbent upon them to Take Public Measures, so the faithful don’t get the wrong idea.
But of course, many of the Catholic faithful in America don’t like their bishops mixing it up with their elected officials. And a bishop, even a hot-tempered Irish one, cannot entirely ignore the demands…or requests…of Prudence.