By Greg Erlandson
A remarkable exchange has been taking place between Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I., and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) over abortion and Catholic identity.
Kennedy is a son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, and the context of this very public rift suggests that a long overdue conversation with the Kennedys’ brand of libertarian Catholicism is finally taking place.
Appropriately enough, the dispute began over health care reform legislation and abortion.
Kennedy suggested that being half right on an issue was good enough. He supported health care reform, but voted against any effort to restrict funding for abortion. He mischaracterized the bishops’ position, suggesting that they were against the “biggest social justice issue of our time.”
Bishop Tobin quickly responded, saying that Kennedy’s comments were “irresponsible and ignorant of the facts.”
Indeed, the Church has been supporting health care reform for decades in this country. But it refuses to condone an evil in order to achieve a good.
Kennedy asserted that his disagreement on the issue of abortion “does not make me any less of a Catholic.”
To which Bishop Tobin responded with directness: “Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does. Although I wouldn’t choose those particular words, when someone rejects the teachings of the Church, especially on a grave matter, a life-and-death issue like abortion, it certainly does diminish their ecclesial communion, their unity with the Church.”
Kennedy took great umbrage, but I suspect many Catholics applauded Bishop Tobin’s forthrightness. By exhorting Kennedy to “repair your relationship with the Church” and urging him to defend “the sanctity of human life for all people, including the unborn children,” he was simply being true to his role as shepherd and teacher.
It cannot be easy to be a bishop. Not only are they plagued by financial and legal crises, and torn between being managers and leaders, CEOs and apostles, but they are sometimes recklessly attacked by co-religionists. Either they are too liberal or too conservative, too outspoken or too quiet.
Personally, I can’t imagine how anyone would want this job, but, of course, it is not a job. It’s a vocation, and like all vocations, it takes courage, fidelity and humility. There is a good chance that everybody will be angry at you at some point, and if it is the applause of the people that a bishop wants, he will be sorely disappointed, or sorely disappointing.
This month came news that our own Bishop John M. D’Arcy will be retiring. Bishop D’Arcy has served for 24 years as head of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., and as the chair of the Board of Directors of Our Sunday Visitor. It is both a tribute to him and a bit of a tragedy that he will be remembered first of all for controversies: His temperate yet firm confrontation with the University of Notre Dame over the “Vagina Monologues” and the awarding of an honorary degree to President Barack Obama in May. Also his willingness to confront head on any situations of priestly sexual abuse. Perhaps less known outside the diocese will be his tireless work ethic, dedication to vocations and commitment to catechesis. He was above all a shepherd and a pastor.
His successor, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Harrisburg, Pa., is a self-described John Paul II bishop with a zeal for the New Evangelization and a strong dedication to bolstering Catholic identity. We welcome his arrival and we encourage our readers to pray for Bishops Rhoades, D’Arcy and Tobin, and for their own bishops. May God bless with great hearts and great courage those who would shepherd his flock.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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