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Patrick Kennedy has a remarkable opportunity. The Democrat, a congressman from Rhode Island and son of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy, is currently embroiled in a scandal of his own making. As it plays out, I’d be delighted to be able to write a profile of his courage.
First of all, contrary to the game of telephone sometimes referred to as “journalism,” Patrick Kennedy’s bishop did not seek to publicly reprimand Kennedy. Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence (no pun intended) was summoned by Kennedy’s public scandal. Tobin has long sought to address, privately, the scandal that is Kennedy’s support for legal abortion.
But in the wake of his father’s passing, in the heat of the health-care debate in Washington (considered by many an exercise in tribute to Ted Kennedy), Patrick Kennedy decided to take the opportunity to lecture the Catholic Church about morality, public policy, and abortion.
In an interview as the U.S. House of Representatives was about to take up health-care legislation that, unamended, would involve federal funding for abortion, Kennedy complained about the Catholic bishops’ opposition to any federal funding of abortion that might be mandated by health-care “reform” legislation or that might otherwise slip through. Against the largest health-care provider in the United States, a Church whose name he uses to modify his, Kennedy railed: “You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life-saving health care? I thought they were pro-life.” He continued: “If the Church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health-care reform, because it’s going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive. So this is an absolute red herring and I don’t think that it does anything but to fan the flames of dissent and discord and I don’t think it’s productive at all.”
The problem, of course, is that various iterations of the health-care legislation would allow the denial of some of the most innocent life.
And so, when Kennedy gave this interview in October, his bishop really had to respond. This is what a father does. He corrects.
Tobin called Kennedy’s statement about life and the Church “irresponsible and ignorant of the facts.” He explained the Church’s position and he called for an apology: “I believe the Congressman owes us an apology for his irresponsible comments. It is my fervent hope and prayer that he will find a way to provide more effective and morally responsible leadership for our state.”
After canceling a meeting with Tobin, Kennedy announced that “the fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” Kennedy would continue the public discussion as the health-care debate began in the Senate, announcing to a local paper that Tobin had instructed priests not to give him Communion. Once again, Kennedy was making it necessary for Tobin to respond. Tobin released the contents of a letter that he had sent Kennedy in 2007 that asked him not to receive Communion. In the letter, he told Kennedy: “I am writing to you personally and confidentially as a pastor addressing a member of his flock. . . . At the present time I have no need or intention to make this a public issue.” Kennedy wrote back: “I understand your pastoral advice was confidential in nature and given with the best intentions for my personal spiritual welfare.”
Well, so much for that.
But Kennedy’s obstinacy — born, most likely, out of deep confusion about what it means to be Catholic — offers Catholics a much-needed catechetical opportunity. In the days after Kennedy made his inaccurate announcement about what exactly his bishop had said to him, Pennsylvania Democratic congressman Patrick Murphy — another “Catholic abortion rights supporter,” in the Boston Globe’s words — received a JFK Foundation award from Patrick Kennedy’s cousin, Caroline. Murphy, who voiced support for Kennedy, told the newspaper that he agrees with the Church on “99 percent of the issues.”
That may be a convenient answer for a politician who wants to be known as a Catholic. But it’s just not so. As Tobin put it in a public letter to Kennedy after his “any less of a Catholic” declaration this fall: “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 sanctity of human life isn’t a footnote, or just another box to check. And “being a Catholic has to mean something,” as Tobin has explained. These realities are being fleshed out in very public ways thanks, as it happens, to Patrick Kennedy.
It’s hard not to think of the late Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey, another Catholic Democrat. In a speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1995, he said: “Human life cannot be measured. It is the measure itself. The value of everything else is weighed against it. The abortion debate is not about how we shall live, but who shall live. And more than that, it’s about who we are.” There’s a secular nudge that very much echoes the opportunity Tobin presents Kennedy: “It’s not too late for you to repair your relationship with the Church, redeem your public image, and emerge as an authentic ‘profile in courage,’ especially by defending the sanctity of human life for all people, including unborn children.”
At his funeral, Ted Kennedy was hailed as a “beacon of social justice.” If his son heeded the guidance of his bishop and the words of the late governor and became a brave pro-life Democratic leader, the Kennedy name could rightfully be just that.
— Copyright 2009, Kathryn Jean Lopez. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Association.