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Bishops who know how to bishop


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Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) has asserted: “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” This was by way of explaining why he would keep advocating for abortion rights. Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, his diocesan bishop, wrote him in response, “Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does [make you less of a Catholic]. 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.”

The Bishop continued: “If you don’t accept the teachings of the Church your communion with the Church is flawed, or in your own words, makes you ‘less of a Catholic.’” Now Kennedy reports, in an interview published on November 22 in the Providence Journal, “The bishop instructed me not to take Communion.” The Bishop is right.

If you’re seriously out of communion with the Church, you should not receive Holy Communion. When our Lord said, “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk 10:16), he was talking to his apostles, and their successors the bishops. After all, he told them, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.” (Mt. 18:18).

When St. Paul wrote “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11:27),” he was warning of the grave consequences of unworthy reception of the Eucharist. So Bishop Tobin is actually doing Rep. Kennedy a favor in the long run, by warding off further sacrilege and scandal, things for which the congressman, as all of us, would have to answer in the life to come.

On the anniversary of his uncle’s assassination in Dallas in 1963, in the month traditionally dedicated to the holy souls in purgatory, and not long after the funeral of his own father Senator Ted Kennedy, it is good to remember that as Catholics we believe in the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. (Of course, believing in death doesn’t require much faith...) Perhaps politicians should especially remember these ultimate realities, as they may be tempted to forfeit their claim to heaven in return for meager temporal advantage. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” (Mk 8:36).

Of course, people claim that separation of church and state means that prelates shouldn’t tell politicians how to vote on matters of public policy. But it certainly is within the province of the bishop to tell Catholics what is necessary to remain a Catholic in good standing. Our constitutional right to the free exercise of religion requires no less: The Church, and not government officials, decides what it is to be a good Catholic.

We just celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. As Pope Benedict said on that occasion, Christ’s kingdom “is not that of the kings and great people of this world; it is God’s power to give eternal life, to free from evil, to confound the dominion of death.” Every conscience must choose: “Who do I want to follow? God or the evil one? Truth or the lie?”

While the way of conversion and repentance is open to all, and much to be preferred, Congressman Kennedy is ultimately free to leave the Church if he can’t accept its essential (and, Catholics believe, infallible) teachings. Few things are worse than being a phony, pretending to be a faithful Catholic while being an actual protestant (in the etymological sense of dissident from, protesting the Church’s authority).

The bishops of the Church in this country, as I noted in last month’s column, have spoken with one voice about the need for abortion funding to be removed from health care reform. Pro-lifers of whatever faith around the country have mobilized to stop a stimulus package for the abortion industry in the guise of health care reform. As a result, the House version excluded all abortion funding. The Senate version now being debated is trying to include abortion funding again. Fortunately, we have bishops who know how to bishop, and lay people, including many non-Catholics, who know how to be conscientious citizens.

Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.

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