Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) is a supporter of a just society. Recently he criticized of the outspokenness of the nation's Catholic bishops in opposing any new health care reform that included Federal funding for abortion. On October 21st, Mr. Kennedy said, "...how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social justice issue of our time [health care reform], adding that that the bishop's position was fanning, "...flames of dissent and discord."
Kennedy and the hierarchy have tangled before on a woman's right to choose an abortion or not based on her conscience; and because she has this right to choose, it is appropriate that publice funds be available so that women, especially poor women, can exercise choice.
Beginning during the pontificate of John Paul II and very evident in the views and actions of Benedict XVI, and now evident in the actions of the American bishops, there is what John Allen has identified as an Evangelical Catholicism. Among the characteristics of this orientation are:1) a strong opposition to "secularism" and much of Western culture (the "culture of death") 2) a need to reclaim a "Catholic Identity" based on clear markers which differentiate being "Catholic" from other religions, 3 ) a defensive posture as exhibited in a new emphasis on apologetics and of episcopal authority and power over the laity and in the public square, and 4) a change from inter-religious dialogue to "inter-cultural" dialogue.
The tension between Mr. Kennedy and his bishop, Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, can be understood best in light of this changing church.
Ostensibly because of Kennedy's stance on abortion, Bishop Tobin sent Mr. Kennedy a private letter on February 27, 2007 in which he said, "In light of the Church's clear teaching, and your consistent actions, I believe it is inappropriate for you to be receiving holy communion and I now respectfully ask you to refrain from doing so." Because of Kennedy's continued stand on abortion, especially his concern that the bishops' lobbying might kill the entire health-care bill, the issue has become public once again and Bishop Tobin has taken a stronger position.
"...Bishop Tobin has accused Mr. Kennedy of 'false advertising' for describing himself as a Catholic." He also said, "If you freely choose to be a Catholic, it means you believe certain things, you do certain things." And, "If you cannot do all that in good conscience, then you should perhaps feel free to go somewhere else."
Most recently the bishop said, I will absolutely respond publically whenever he attacks the Catholic Church, misrepresents the teachings of the Church or issues inaccurate statements about my pastoral ministry."
Joseph Califano is a Catholic layman who served as chief domestic advisor to President Lyndon Johnson and as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare for President Jimmy Carter. Under Johnson, Califano was responsible for enforcing Johnson's aggressive policy to promote family planning in the United States and internationally. Johnson ordered that contraceptives be made available to the poor and Califano was to enforce the policy.
Johnson's policy was attacked by the Catholic bishops as "coercing the poor to practice birth control;" Johnson told Califano to "work something out" with the bishops so as not to lose their support for his anti-poverty and civil rights legislation and programs. Califano met with Archbishop (later Cardinal) John F. Dearden (Detroit), leader of the American Bishops, and members of the Bishops' staff. They worked out differences by rephrasing words (E.g. from "contraceptive" to "population control") and re-writing the policy to include the, Church approved, rythm method of family planning. With this the bishops toned down their stinging criticism.
Both Jimmy Carter and Califano personally opposed abortion. However, Congress approved funds for abortion if the life of the mother was in danger (which the bishops tolerated) and, in addition, in the cases of rape and incest (which the bishops opposed) which were "promptly reported." Califano was tasked with the responsibility to define "promply." He defined this as "sixty days." The American Bishops were livid and went on the attack, but it was never suggested that Califano be denied the Eucharist.
At this time of increasingly assertive behavior on the part of the bishops, it would be wise to follow the words of Joseph Califano:
"As Catholics and as citizens, we have a right and obligation to assert our convictions on public issues clearly and vigorously -- to hope and work that they should prevail. To expect less from a public official would ask that he leave his conscience at home...."
"Where we cannot find unanimous answers, there is at least one point on which bishops and Catholic politicians can find common ground: insistence that those who search for the right answers are doing so with integrity and sincere conviction. That was what the church leaders I dealt with in the 1960s and '70s recognized, as their successors should today."
Do they? Will they?