Catholic in America

Quite the controversy was stirred up recently when it was revealed that Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island had asked Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) to refrain from taking communion. The reason?

Here’s the bishop himself offering a synopsis:

“He attacked the church. He attacked the position of the church on health care, on abortion, on funding,” Tobin said. “And that required that I respond. I don’t go out looking for these guys. I don’t go out picking these fights.”

You could have fooled me, Your Excellency.

“Attacked.” Pretty strong words. I think if you ask most people, “attack” brings up notions of adversary or enemy. So according to the bishop, Patrick Kennedy is the enemy of the Catholic Church, at least in Rhode Island.

Why? Ah yes, he “attacked” the position of the Church on health care and abortion. Did he really?

I don’t know. But here’s what I wonder.

I wonder if the people who seem like the Church’s greatest enemies aren’t doing them the greatest of services. I also wonder if love and devotion is always and everywhere expressed through cognitive agreement.

I also wonder who or what I’m hurting if I call into question the “morality” of holding health care reform hostage to the abortion issue. Am I really supposed to keep my mouth shut on these or other matters of morality simply because I’m no longer a Catholic?

I think some would have us believe that Catholics, Christians, or the religious in general enjoy an exclusive right to speak with authority on moral matters. They might even suggest that whenever something is done in the name of religion it should enjoy an automatic immunity from criticism or critique (especially of the internal variety).

I couldn’t disagree more.

You see, I question the genesis of the Stupak Amendment. I wonder if it was ever really designed to serve the anti-abortion cause. I wonder, instead, if its timing doesn’t reveal it to be a legislative hand grenade lobbed in the general direction of a President and his party.

And speaking of morality, I also question the morals of threatening to withdraw aid to the poor if lesbians and gays are granted equal protection under civil (not natural, not canon, but civil) law in the District of Columbia.

In recent years, I’ve come to question whether the only legitimate way to oppose abortion is to support its re-criminalization. For a bit longer, I’ve questioned whether making abortion a litmus test for membership in the Catholic communion reduces the faith to the status of a political movement, or ties its fortunes excessively to those of a particular political party.

I’ve also wondered out loud whether it’s pastorally, theologically, or morally appropriate for bishops or priests to use what Catholics consider to be a sacrament – the body and blood of their risen Lord – as a political weapon to punish dissident Catholics.

I also question whether such practices are in keeping with what many regard as the bishops’ highest function: to be a pastor.

Is it any more appropriate to withhold Communion from a seeking parishioner than it is to withhold food from a misbehaving guest to one’s home? How about from one’s misbehaving child?

When parents threaten to withhold food, does this suggest to the outside observer that they’ve got matters firmly in hand, or that things are getting a little out of control?

What would you do if you heard a parent threatening a child this way in a public place? Would you get angry or upset? And would you walk away simply because “that’s an internal family matter?”

Or would your humanity and concern for the (spiritual) child – or awareness of the significance of (spiritual) food lead you to say, “hey, bishop, wait a minute, hold on, time out!”

Lastly, back when I was a “capital C” Catholic I heard some pretty interesting things about the sacrament of Communion. Among those were its description as a transformative encounter in more ways than one.

There’s the transsubstantiation, to be sure, the mysterious conversion of bread and wine to the body and blood of someone who conquered death (and did this in order to pay the tab for everybody). But there was also something about transformation of souls.

I ask myself this: isn’t it possible that administering the sacrament of Communion might, in and of itself, change hearts? On things like abortion? Or the pastorality of using the Host in particular ways?

Now this is just a hunch, and I could be wrong, but let me share my suspicions anyway.

What if those who refuse to acknowledge possibilities like the foregoing don’t believe enough in the power of the sacrament? Logically, then, they’d have to resort to their own powers – ministrations, exhortations, and other behaviors – to make the things they want to happen take place.

I wonder, then, what would happen if they stepped out of the way a little bit and just let the sacrament do its work.

Back when I was considering becoming a priest, I had a spiritual director who said that Catholics who didn’t fully believe in the power of the sacraments weren’t bad or evil people, simply not fully converted Catholics. I’ve never been able to shake those words or their effect on me.

Anyway, those are my pastoral, moral, and theological concerns with the bishop’s actions. Here are my political ones.

Whenever any cleric applies political pressure to an elected official of their faith, it undermines a particular kind of trust. The voter in a pluralistic society which believes in the separation of church and state needs to believe in the independence of their elected officials from their church.

Not divorce. Not marriage. Independence.

Of course, in a theocracy, none of this matters. But we’re not a theocracy, at least not yet.

Let’s say you’re not Catholic. What incentive could you possibly have to vote for someone who’s at risk of having to answer to their priest or bishop instead of to you, her constituent?

Let’s say you are Catholic, and would dearly love to see more of your people elected to higher office. You thought the days of anti-Catholic prejudice were over, when people accused people like Jack Kennedy of being an agent of the Pope. But now those criticisms are back, and you’re forced to defend your faith and citizenship once again.

The harm to the political fortunes of Catholic politicians in a pluralistic society would be minimized if the pressure were applied behind closed doors. But it’s not. It’s a spectacle now.

The bishop’s actions would be pastoral if the shepherd’s staff were a javelin, but it’s not.

And the bishop’s actions would be great politics if we were a nation of Catholics, and conservative Republicans ones at that.

But we’re not.

As with anything I write, I reserve full permission to revise and extend my remarks on these matters in the face of new and compelling evidence.

Readers, where have I gotten it wrong? Let me know, and I’ll proudly post whatever it is you convince me of in my next post on this topic.


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