The Corner

Chris Matthews vs. Bishop Tobin

Apparently not having been warned that the host is a thug and a blowhard, Bishop Tobin–the fellow who urged Rep. Patrick Kennedy not to present himself for communion–went on Chris Matthews’s show. I’m afraid that the bishop didn’t do much good for himself during the moments that Matthews allowed him to interrupt his filibuster (not that I’m saying I would have done better!).

Matthews made three basic, and related, points. The first is that it is possible to agree with the Church’s moral teaching about abortion without thinking that the law should follow that teaching. The second is that the bishop has no business criticizing Rep. Kennedy’s voting record on abortion unless he is willing to outline in detail the legal code that he, the bishop, wants to see govern abortion. The third is that this code should, to be consistent, include jail time for the woman seeking abortion.

Matthews is wrong on all three points.

The Church’s teaching is that the state has a duty to protect peaceable human beings in the embryonic and fetal stages of development (as at all subsequent stages) from being deliberately killed; to wish that the law would ignore that teaching is to reject it.

The second point is ridiculous (and the third therefore collapses too). Let’s say that the bishops said that the government has a duty to help the poor and sick by enacting legislation to expand the number of people with health insurance. Would Matthews really rule their comments out of bounds unless they went on to draw up a bill to reach that goal? (Would it have to be 2,000 pages long?) In that case I suspect that Matthews would be fine with their laying out of a goal. Would he criticize the bishops’ comments on the death penalty unless they outlined a detailed penal code they would support? In that case I think he would be able to see that they could support a wide range of legal regimes so long as they did not involve capital punishment. In the case of abortion, as well, a wide range of legal regimes is compatible with adherence to the norm that the law should prohibit the intentional killing of unborn human beings. Not only do the bishops not need to pick one of those regimes; they would be wrong to suggest that the Church’s teachings lead to one specific regime of penalties.

There are other sound arguments that could be deployed against Matthews, but I’ll just mention one more thing: The Church isn’t actually ordering the congressmen to vote in any particular way; it is telling him the conditions for his reception of communion.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.