Clash of Realms: Bishop Tobin, Representative Kennedy, and Church-State Entanglement.

Thomas J. Tobin, bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Providence, Rhode Island has apparently instructed Rep. Patrick Kennedy not to present himself for Holy Communion due to the latter’s pro-abortion stance and his public statements asserting that his standing as a Catholic is unaffected by his dissent from the unwavering and well-known position of the Church on this issue.

Is this an inappropriate and possibly illegal violation of much-vaunted “separation of church and state”? Is this cause for the Catholic Church to lose its tax exempt status? No on both counts. Let me explain why, while also explaining how this doesn’t represent any sort of alternate theocratic state existing within US borders (a charge I can already hear coming from those who wish to equate this row with the desire of Islamists to have autonomous areas within the States where they can impose shari’a).

The Catholic Church is and has been a supernatural institution founded by God among men while He was in the flesh on earth. It exists to be God’s earthly channel of graces; to manifest God’s love on earth through a visible institution; to help souls get to heaven through knowledge and acceptance of, and a life live in accordance with, God’s love. The Church exists to teach, lead, and sanctify. This divine charge includes the responsibility to correct errant teaching to prevent heresy and, if need be, to make examples of those who cause scandal so that others might not be led astray by mixed signals concerning God’s truth.

The Church does not exist to be a secular ruler, to establish economic systems, to dictate governing policy, or to anoint kings. Various popes, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, monsignors, etc. have wielded significant secular power through the millenia, to be sure, but this was always a result of the circumstances of the day, the personal ambition of the prelate in question, or some combination of circumstances where the religious authority and secular power , and was never the explicit purpose of the office of the prelate or of the Church.

Abortion is one of the issues which the Church repeatedly, clearly, unwaveringly has said is morally reprehensible. Unlike issues such as the level to which a government should provide a social safety net for the poor, how strict environmental protection laws should be, or even the death penalty, where there are prudential judgments involved based on many factors, abortion is a clear, black-and-white issue: it is wrong. Period. Repugnant to God’s law of life and love. Even the Hyde amendment is not as strict as the Catholic Church is on these issues (it’s not the child’s fault he or she was conceived in rape or incest).

Bishop Tobin is the shepherd of the diocese of Providence, which includes the entire state of Rhode Island. Patrick Kennedy is one of his spiritual children. Bishop Tobin is the chief teacher of his diocese. He has spiritual responsibility for all people–Catholic and non–in his diocese. Patrick Kennedy supports the “right” to abortion, and even supports forcing all Americans to pay for abortions (he voted against the Stupak amendment).

Kennedy’s support for abortion “rights” signifies a significant breach of communion with the Catholic Church. Like the God who animates her, the One who named Himself, “I AM WHO AM,” The Catholic Church is what she is at her deepest level. While disciplines, liturgies, orders, and other aspects of her life on earth can and do change from time to time so she might address the contemporary milieu more directly, she does not change in her essentials. An institution founded and guided by a God who does not change cannot itself change. While abortion may have become a political football, the defense of life is first and foremost an issue of God’s sovereignty, and therefore one in which the Church has been interested since the earliest disciples evangelized pagan cultures that practiced human sacrifice (indeed, since the prophets of various Ba’als were depose and their altars torn down by the prophets of old, considering the continuum of Jewish-Christian history as the same revelation of the one God).

Over the past few weeks Bishop Tobin has tried to meet with Congressman Kennedy to discuss the abortion issue and its implications for Kennedy’s standing as a Catholic. In a letter concerning the potential meeting, Representative Kennedy said, “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.”

Bishop Tobin responded publicly on the merits of that statement, and not on the topic of healthcare legislation. He said (all bolding mine),

For the moment I’d like to set aside the discussion of health care reform, as important and relevant as it is, and focus on one statement contained in your letter of October 29, 2009, in which you write, “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” That sentence certainly caught my attention and deserves a public response, lest it go unchallenged and lead others to believe it’s true. And it raises an important question: What does it mean to be a Catholic?

What follows is a brilliant and concise catechesis into what exactly does it mean to call oneself “Catholic.” I recommend the entire letter.

But the point is that Bishop Tobin was instructing one who calls himself “Catholic,” and clearly intends to continue so to do, what that identification means. No one can force Kennedy to stop calling himself Catholic; nor can anyone force him to believe that which he chooses not to believe. But if the one does not square with the other, it is the Church’s responsibility, and particularly the bishop’s responsibility, to make sure one very public person’s obstinate dissent is not taken as a tacitly approved position for Catholics to maintain. Qui tacit consentire, the principle states, “silence gives consent.” Hence Bishop Tobin’s letter.

Since then, Kennedy, in an interview, made public that Tobin also instructed him not to receive Communion and is barred from receiving Communion in the diocese of Providence. A few significant points on this action.

First: Kennedy, not Tobin, made this public. Remember that when anyone says Tobin injected religion into politics. In fact, Tobin’s office made very little comment, only to deny that Tobin has discussed this matter with the pastors of the diocese, which casts serious doubt on Kennedy’s assertion that Tobin “barred him” from Communion in the diocese. It seems more likely that Tobin strictly instructed Kennedy personally not to present himself for Communion, especially while in the diocese of Providence. (Bishops have canonical authority only within the bounds of their own diocese. Archbishop Wuerl of Washington would be the one to officially bar Catholyc politicians from Communion in Washington, DC, while the home bishop retains spiritual fatherhood of the members of Congress who reside within their several dioceses.)

Second: What is the significance of this? The very name of the Sacrament in question suggests the significance: Communion. This Sacrament has so many levels that can be examined (e.g., the reception of the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ has and does keep theologians mesmerized for a lifetime) but we’ll focus on Communion as the outward sign and inner reality of spiritual and actual unity. We receive the same one Lord who is One and has no division within Himself. Our unity as a body of believers of the same faith is to include undivided belief on those matters where unity is required. The Communion we share is a sign of our unity of belief and it draws us into the One Lord where all shall be one with Him. Before presenting himself for Communion, each and every believer is charged to examine his conscience and determine if he is guilty of any separation from the body of Christ through mortal sin or any schism–overt or covert. The believer who determines that he is not in fact in communion is then obliged, under pain of sacrilege, not to present himself for Communion. The obligation changes from person to person according to their spiritual formation and public status–public officials must consider not only their private standing, but the public scandal their actions may cause. With respect to public officials and sins of scandal, the bishop of the local Church can and must also consider the impact the public actions of Catholic public officials on the faithful at large. (The bishop’s first consideration must be the individual soul of the public official, but preventing scandal is a close second. The former is rightly reserved to private meetings and communications, the latter to public–a division we have seen Bishop Tobin respect in this matter.) If the bishop determines that the official’s actions can or will lead to scandal and confusion, he has authority–perhaps even the obligation–to bar the official from Communion until such time as the threat of scandal is passed through public acts of atonement and amendment of will. Such actions are for the sake of the individual public official’s immortal soul, and for the sake of the unity and purity of the Church.

What this is, then…

From the secular point of view, this is nothing more than a matter of a private institution governing itself; a leader of an institution instructing a “member” of that institution on the essential substance of being a member in good standing of the institution. The individual can decide whether he will remain a member in good standing, but he cannot set his own definition of what that means. Whether Kennedy remains a member in good standing of the Catholic Church is up to Kennedy. He can choose. Bishops Tobin has made clear the path Kennedy must walk, but he cannot walk it for Kennedy.

The Catholic Church is an institution that is intimately involved in this world because its Founder and Lord is intimately involved in this world. The Church seeks only to guide souls to heaven, and affect politics only inasmuch as her guidance leads her members to act and govern in accordance with God’s law of love and life. She does not force anyone to become or remain a member. She does not, as an institution, declare policies or governments legitimate or illegitimate. The realm her Lord commands is in this world as human hearts and souls are in this world, but she holds as secondary the politics of this world as she points to and leads her children to the life of her Lord in the world to come.

Note, if you will: Bishop Tobin did not tell Kennedy how to vote on any legislation. He did not inject religion into politics. He did not endorse the Stupak amendment, did not inveigh against the healthcare bill, did not mention a single piece of legislation. He instructed a wayward son on questions affecting eternity, morality, sanctity. As such, there is no violation of tax-exempt status.

And this is the great intersection of the secular and the Christian religious realms–the battleground of the human person. Secular governance is carried out by human actors. Each human actor chooses his actions on the basis of first principles of anthropology and morality and the political and economic philosophy that arises from those first principles. The Church has much to offer and instruct on morality and anthropology, which directly feeds governing philosophy. Her members who enter politics cannot ignore her teaching just because the prevailing opinion is that they ought to–that prevailing opinion is itself built upon a competing set of first principles, not upon a virtuous dispassionate ideal of “fairness,” or a gauzy notion of “separation of church and state.” Her members who embrace “personally opposed, but…” introduce division into themselves, and therefore into the Church. But since the Church abides no division on essentials, they set themselves against the Church. But in all actions here, the Church remains what she is while her recalcitrant members and unfortunate critics scurry about constructing worlds of nuance and exception around themselves–worlds ultimately doomed to destruction. Her critics, internal and external, will continue to criticize her according to their own hang-ups, angry that she refuses to bend with the winds they prefer.

One such hang-up is the charge that this is no different than the Islamists who seek to establish shari’a law in autonomous enclaves within the borders, or even to simply be a separate and unpatriotic people living within the borders ready to subvert the government–a charge Catholics faced for a good portion of this nation’s history. Only those with their own ax to grind and/or a profound ignorance would seriously make this charge. A moment’s reflection upon the nature of shari’a and the nature (as I’ve outlined in this commentary) of the Catholic understanding of the role of the Church vis-a-vis secular governance puts the lie to such a notion.

Even so, I expect a backlash to Bishop Tobin’s pastoral admonition. It won’t be the first nor the last anti-Church action, and it will be just as wrongly directed as the criticisms that led Augustine to pen City of God when the enemies of the Church blamed Christianity for the demise of the Roman empire. And it will also fail to strike at the heart of the Church’s influence and power, just as every previous attack from without or within has failed.

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