Matthews v. Tobin

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I doubt that Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has received such a dressing down since one of those sisters of St. Joseph caught little Tommy stealing pears from an orchard in Erie, Pa. in 1956. OK, I don’t know this. But Chris Matthews did a Hardball number on him last night that His Excellency will not soon forget. Over on the America blog, Michael Sean Winters offers a bit of an apologia and advice to Catholic prelates in their close encounters with media tough guys.

The sympathy is, in my view, misplaced. If bishops venture into the public square to lobby and otherwise give the business to public officials, they should be prepared when others dish it out. Tobin’s own characterization of Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s behavior as “erratic,” reiterated with gusto in today’s Providence Journal-Bulletin, is too close to a low blow for comfort, given Kennedy’s well-known problems with drugs and alcohol. Kennedy may or may not have misstated (or misunderstood) a fact or two, but there’s been nothing erratic about his behavior in his month-long dispute with Tobin, so far as I can see.

Matthews began his interview with a clip from Jack Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech to the Houston ministers, in which the presidential nominee says that he believes in an America “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope.” Tobin got off to a really bad start by claiming that Kennedy was actually coming out against the establishment of an official religion in America. There are a number of ways to deal with what JFK said in the Protestant lion’s den that day, but that’s not one of them. The appearance went downhill from there.

Meanwhile, the Tobin-Kennedy affair has provoked pro-choice Catholic pols in the Northeast into a flurry of activity. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) rose to the defense of Kennedy, as did two senatorial hopefuls in Massachusetts, both of whom took the occasion of a campaign forum to remind their church of the logs in its own eye. For a few years now, there’s been a bit of truce in the abortion wars, but thanks to the health care debate, that’s over. Some bishops who have been feeling their oats will now be reminded that the other side can get pretty frisky too.