Tobin to Kennedy: Not Sure if You're Catholic

A public letter to Congressman Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, from Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, in which Bishop Tobin says, "I'm not sure you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic."  It was published in the Rhode Island Catholic here.  (H/T Robert Mickens.)  The text of the letter is below, with only the paragraph breaks adjusted.

Dear Congressman Kennedy:

Since our recent correspondence has been rather public, I hope you don’t mind if I share a few reflections about your practice of the faith in this public forum. I usually wouldn’t do that – that is speak about someone’s faith in a public setting – but in our well-documented exchange of letters about health care and abortion, it has emerged as an issue. I also share these words publicly with the thought that they might be instructive to other Catholics, including those in prominent positions of leadership.

For the moment I’d like to set aside the discussion of health care reform, as important and relevant as it is, and focus on one statement contained in your letter of October 29, 2009, in which you write, “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” That sentence certainly caught my attention and deserves a public response, lest it go unchallenged and lead others to believe it’s true. And it raises an important question: What does it mean to be a Catholic?

“The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” 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. This principle is based on the Sacred Scripture and Tradition of the Church and is made more explicit in recent documents.

For example, the “Code of Canon Law” says, “Lay persons are bound by an obligation and possess the right to acquire a knowledge of Christian doctrine adapted to their capacity and condition so that they can live in accord with that doctrine.” (Canon 229, #1) The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says this: “Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles, ‘He who hears you, hears me,’ the faithful receive with docility the teaching and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.” (#87)  Or consider this statement of the Church: “It would be a mistake to confuse the proper autonomy exercised by Catholics in political life with the claim of a principle that prescinds from the moral and social teaching of the Church.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2002)

There’s lots of canonical and theological verbiage there, Congressman, but what it means is that 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.” But let’s get down to a more practical question; let’s approach it this way: What does it mean, really, to be a Catholic? After all, being a Catholic has to mean something, right?

Well, in simple terms – and here I refer only to those more visible, structural elements of Church membership – being a Catholic means that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.

Congressman, I’m not sure whether or not you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic, so let me ask: Do you accept the teachings of the Church on essential matters of faith and morals, including our stance on abortion? Do you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish? Do you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly? Do you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially?

In your letter you say that you “embrace your faith.” Terrific. But if you don’t fulfill the basic requirements of membership, what is it exactly that makes you a Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage? Your letter also says that your faith “acknowledges the existence of an imperfect humanity.” Absolutely true. But in confronting your rejection of the Church’s teaching, we’re not dealing just with “an imperfect humanity” – as we do when we wrestle with sins such as anger, pride, greed, impurity or dishonesty. We all struggle with those things, and often fail.

Your rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion falls into a different category – it’s a deliberate and obstinate act of the will; a conscious decision that you’ve re-affirmed on many occasions. Sorry, you can’t chalk it up to an “imperfect humanity.” Your position is unacceptable to the Church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church.

Congressman Kennedy, I write these words not to embarrass you or to judge the state of your conscience or soul. That’s ultimately between you and God. But your description of your relationship with the Church is now a matter of public record, and it needs to be challenged. I invite you, as your bishop and brother in Christ, to enter into a sincere process of discernment, conversion and repentance. 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. And if I can ever be of assistance as you travel the road of faith, I would be honored and happy to do so.

Sincerely yours,

Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of Providence


James Martin, S.J.


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Joshua DeCuir
9 years 2 months ago
BOOM!  About time someone said that, especially to a Kennedy.
Marie Rehbein
9 years 2 months ago
Perhaps, Kennedy meant to say that his disagreements with the Catholic Church heirarchy do not make him any less of a Christian, while his obvious lack of docility does make him an imperfect Catholic - unlike Bishop Tobin whom one must assume is a perfect Catholic, though he is clearly not perfect Christian, since no one can be a perfect Christian, since humans, unlike Christ, cannot be perfect.  In particular, Bishop Tobin's imperfection in this instance is that he is more concerned with preserving the image of the Church's authority than he is with preserving the family of God.
Marc Monmouth
9 years 2 months ago
Marie Rehbein, Bishop Tobin never represented that he was a perfect Catholic. I am sure the Bishop knows there is no such thing as a perfect Catholic or Christian-I do beleive the two are one and the same.  Preserving the family of God? At what cost? Patrick Kennedy is an arrogant and obnoxious politician. He certainly does not speak for the Church. Christ was content in letting those who could not accept His message walk away. He did not chase after them for the sake of preserving the family of God. (See the Rich Young Fool).  Catholic teachings can never be compromised for the sake of the Kennedy Family.  Perhaps you are impressed with them, but not everyone is. 
Gabriel Marcella
9 years 2 months ago
Bishop Tobin acknowledges his imperfection by saying: ''But in confronting your rejection of the Church’s teaching, we’re not dealing just with “an imperfect humanity” – as we do when we wrestle with sins such as anger, pride, greed, impurity or dishonesty. We all struggle with those things, and often fail.'' Moreover, his use of ''profile in courage” is the direct quote of the title of JFK's book Profiles in Courage. Kudos to the Bishop for such a nuanced and inclusive statement of what it is to be Catholic in a pluralistic society. This was much needed, given all the so called Catholics in public life who support abortion.
Joe Garcia
9 years 2 months ago
Dear Father,
I would hope you might consider rewording the headline to this blog entry, as it might give the unintended impression Bp. Tobin was being both callous and dismissive to Rep. Kennedy.
That said, it would also be useful to see the exchange of letters, to put this latter communique' in proper context. It seems to me - someone correct me - that Rep. Kennedy had taken the position that he had some minor quibbles on marginal matters with some "higher-ups" in the Church; which Bp. Tobin was addressing and offering (if somewhat sternly) some correction.
Beth Cioffoletti
9 years 2 months ago
This letter does not sit well with me.  I suppose I'm a bit like Representative Kennedy - feeling very much like a Catholic, believing the core teachings of the Catholic Faith - that God entered humanity through Jesus, who died and rose from the dead, and continues to be present among us in the Eucharist.  I absolutely love the monastic orders.  I believe in the sacredness of life, and oppose both abortion and the Death Penalty.  But I have disagreements with other Catholics over how these beliefs can best be lived in a pluralistic society.
It seems to me that the Archbishop is judging Rep. Kennedy based on whether or not he is obeying the rules of the club - does he belong to a parish, does he pay his dues?  He says that these are the "basic requirements" of being a Catholic.
If I disagree with the Archbishop, does that mean I'm kicked out?  Or does Catholicism mean more than adhering to rules?
david power
9 years 2 months ago
I really think the heading should be changed.But maybe it serves its purpose.Sharks etc.Bishop Tobin has spoken as a true sheperd and is genuinely worried about the soul entrusted to him and us catholics have to believe and understand that Patrick Kennedy maybe has at least two new voices rooting for him these days in heaven.His Aunt is a cert.The challenge of pluralism is an interesting one but we dont wring our hands at racism so why should we at abortion?This pluralist society needs catholic values and when it ceases to respect them it ceases to be pluralistic.Anyway Patrick Kennedy has had a hard time recently and we should allhope and pray that he finds consolation and strength in his faith and makes room for the little ones too.God bless him.
Claire Mathieu
9 years 2 months ago
Bp Tobin asks a good question: ''what does it mean to be Catholic?''
The answer is not that complicated: look at what Confirmation candidates do, say and pledge on the day of their Confirmation, and that will give you the timeless definition of what it means to be Catholic.
Everything else is just Bp Tobin's personal opinion.
Claire Mathieu
9 years 2 months ago
''what is it exactly that makes you a Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage?''
For a Catholic reading this, that's a shocking turn of phrase. It puts baptism at a par with family ties and cultural heritage. But baptism has a mysterious, sacramental dimension that, to believers, makes it different in a fundamental way.
I can't believe a Catholic bishop wrote this!
Vince Killoran
9 years 2 months ago
Wow-Bishop Tobin is so bothered that Representative Kennedy doesn't support legislation to re-criminalize abortion that he's questioning the amount of his weekly contribution to parish coffers.
The bishop's letter is an awful example of pastoral dialogue; his understanding of the relationship of Church teachings  to the process of individual Catholics' faith formation is flawed.
Jim McCrea
9 years 2 months ago
"There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism Benedict XV concluded. "It is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname’ “
David Gibson, “Who Is a Real Catholic?” The Washington Post, Sunday, May 17, 2009 
“Rather than say that I know what I believe, I think it is closer to the truth to say that I know the framework within which I believe, and doubt, and wonder.  - Christian faith must not be seen as a series of propositions to which one assents. When membership in the church is reduced to this level, it cannot provide us with a community within which people may be transformed. Faith has to do with a relationship with someone, not something. It is not a party line. Seeing who this person is, as clearly as we can, is the reason for dogma.”
John Garvey, “Doubt and the Community of Believers”, Commonweal, 2/23/2007
 A bishop never more resembles Jesus Christ than when he has his mouth shut.                      
Attributed to St. Ignatius of Antioch.
 “The Catholic narrative understands the life of faith as a journey, a struggle, an adventure, in which there are setbacks and reversals, but in which the Leader of our party is always working to get us back on the right road. There are times when we seem to make no progress at all, and others when we come across stunning vistas that awe us and bring us to tears. We work out our salvation in fear and trembling, but also in joy and excitement.
What my baptism has done for me is in some ways quite mysterious, but at least in one way quite obvious: It has given me a set of traveling companions, a great cloud of witnesses both living and dead who walk with me on the road. There was a time in my life when I had fallen so far behind the party that I had forgotten I was part of it. But the Leader of the party had not forgotten. Looking back, I can see now that He was with me all the time, encouraging me, cajoling me, and also giving me one or two well deserved kicks in the posterior! “ 
posted by Peter Nixon, “Sursum Corda” blogsite, Tuesday, January 28,
James Lindsay
9 years 2 months ago
The Church has every right to teach about the morality of abortion. It gets into trouble when it tries to mandate how to do this. In this area, it has been badly advised by it's legal staff (much in the same way it has received bad legal advice on matters best not mentioned).
Claire Mathieu
9 years 2 months ago
This bishop has an agenda.

He is giving a warning or correction and he is publicly saying that Congressman Kennedy is committing an obstinate act of the will, so that he can later move on to the logical next step in his book: request that he does not receive communion.

I find this legal - not pastoral - style distasteful.

9 years 2 months ago
Kennedy's obstinance and ignorance is disturbing.  I think it would also be disturbing to be a fly on the wall to see Kennedy's real feelings about the Church and her bishops.
Helena Loflin
9 years 2 months ago
I'm not sure about his being a perfect Catholic or Christian, but I'm certain that Bishop Tobin is a perfect Republican.
Gabriel McAuliffe
9 years 2 months ago
Michele -
How do you conclude that Bishop Tobin is a Republican?  Because he is speaking out against a Democrat?
From a Catholic who is also (gasp) a Republican.
Helena Loflin
9 years 2 months ago
Gabriel, Bishop Tobin's use of Republican talking points makes it clear that he's a Republican.  Do you recall the bishop's personal address to President Bush on the immorality of unjust war of choice?  Neither do I.  Oops.  The bishop never challenged the Bush administration about unjust war or conspiracy and lying to conduct unjust war resulting in the needless death of almost 5,000 brave Americans and countless thousands of innocent Iraqi men, women and children or the immorality of unregulated free-market capitalism that would soon topple the American and world economies or government/government contractor corruption gone wild or...the list goes on and on.  No Republican bishop ever found fault with the recent Republican administration/congress, the most incompetent and negligent in our beloved nation's history.  Yes, Tobin is a Republican.
Helena Loflin
9 years 2 months ago
Ouch!  I thought Bishop Tobin's comments were really ignorant, arrogant and self-righteous.  Who is he to judge or question anyone's faith?  Agenda indeed.  Shame on him!
Marie Rehbein
9 years 2 months ago
     Patrick Kennedy is a person, just like any of the many other Catholic persons I know who live and work in Rhode Island, some of whom are employed as elected public servants.  The job of a public servant is public, by definition.  It requires thoughts to be shared publicly.  Kennedy had thought publicly that the Catholic Church's concern over abortion with regard to health care reform might undermine the effort at reform.  He said that he thought that the Church was fanning the flames of dissent and discord-presumably instead of working productively to help reform health care. 
     As a non-Catholic, I find it disconcerting to think that correction like Bishop Tobin's public correction more commonly goes on behind the scenes, potentially influencing our elected officials out of induced fear for their souls to do the bidding of their priests instead of their constituents.  I believe it is this kind of discomfort among the constituency that leads Catholic politicians to make their disagreements with Catholic teaching known publicly.  
     Kennedy has not intruded into the world of religion by making it known that he has disagreements with the heirarchy of the Catholic Church.  He is not attacking the Church for its teachings.  He is not seeking to change them to match his political views on matters of morality.  He is not attempting to inspire an insurrection within the Catholic Church by his declaration that he is still Catholic despite his disagreement.
     Instead, the Church, in the person of Bishop Tobin, has taken what appears to be an egomaniacally defensive reaction against a criticism that may not be 100% true, but that is also not 100% false.  The tone and public nature of this reaction reveals that the concern is almost exclusively for the image of the Church and not at all for anyone's faith in God or for anyone's religious insecurities. 
     It would have been much better for Bishop Tobin to ignore Kennedy's remarks out of respect for those few people in Rhode Island who were not baptized as Catholics and who think they have a right to expect representation of their views from their elected officials.  Instead, he virtually declares that the more than 60% of that state's population that was baptized Catholic should not be calling itself Catholic, given that they too have disagreements, possibly on the necessity or lack thereof to address abortion directly in health insurance reform legislation, and they likely also do not "support the Church financially".
Gabriel McAuliffe
9 years 2 months ago
Michele -

I don't recall that challenging President Bush on this war is the absolute criteria on which we must be a Catholic. Also, I don't see whether or not one be be attacking capitalism in order to be a Catholic.

I am a little dismayed by your post. You seem to be as absolutist about your "talking points" as others are stating that Bishop Tobin is.

I pray all is well with you.

Gregory Popcak
9 years 2 months ago
It is true that membership in Catholicism is more akin to a family than a club requiring assent to certain "terms of membership."  That said, as a family therapist, I know that there are times when it is no longer possible to allow a family member to live in your home.
Imagine the family who has an adult child still living at home who does not contribute to the well-being of their brothers and sisters.  This older brother comes home at all hours, refuses to help keep the house, doesn’t participate in family activities, ignores family rules and defies the parents authority all while continuing to enjoy the benefits of a free bed and a fridge to raid at will.  All of this is bad enough, but suddenly the parents notice that the older sibling’s behavior is affecting the parents’ younger children, who are picking up on the defiant and self-destructive actions of the older brother. 
Many progresives would have this family continue to enable the older brother in his destructive habits, leading not only to the family’s collaboration in the older brother’s destruction, but also in the family’s toleration of the destruction of the family as his behavior becomes normalized and accepted by the other children in the house.
This is codependent.  Pure and simple.  Worse, it contradicts the very definition of love which is to “work for the good of the other. “  Rather that working for the good of the other, enabling leads to the destruction of the person and the family itself.
By contrast, Bishop Tobin is making the difficult, and more loving choice, to challenge the irresponsible family member in a forthright, but still charitable way, to become a contributing member of the household (in the emotional, relational, spiritual and temporal senses) or, because the wider family cannot continue to support his destructive behavior, to feel free to move out of the house.
If that family member chooses to move out of the house, he will still be family.  He’ll just be estranged family.  Being family may be forever, but getting to live in the family home and sit at the family table is dependent upon a willingness to maintain certain responsibilities toward the family.  Rep. Kennedy needs to take the advice of his uncle and stop asking what his family can do for him, and instead ask what he can do for his family.
Or he can move out.  His call.
Agnes Deigh
9 years 2 months ago
The people of the Church do so much good for the poor, working quietly behind the scenes, to enhance the quality of life for the sick, the elderly, and the unborn.  These are the anonymous Christians of this world.
In addition, administratively and financially the Church (that is, money given by the laity and distributed by the Church) does a great deal for the marginalized as well, particularly its support for hospitals that mainly serve the poor.
It is a shame that all of the silent, unpublicized labor and money given to alleviate pain and suffering in this country is continually overshadowed by the publicity-hungry hierarchy.  To non-Catholic Americans, the Church in this decade will be remembered for two (maybe three) things: its response (or non-response) to the abuse crisis, and its heavy-handed incursion into the health care debate and (now) its attack on Catholic politicians such as Patrick Kennedy.  When one thinks of all of the Catholics who are not members of the clergy laboring to build the Kingdom, and then contrast this with the theological anathemas being levelled by bishops - which always make the news - one can't help but think that the definition of scandal ought to be widened a bit.
Bishop Tobin is a prime example of the narrow theological education rampant in diocesan seminaries, which - now that he and bishops of his type are in charge - presumably will continue.  This is a Church for the Middle Ages, not the modern world.  The secular press loves to highlight conflict and schism in the Church, and Tobin - while thinking he is doing Christ's work - might actually be doing the opposite.
Bill Collier
9 years 2 months ago
Someone mentioned that it would be good to see all the correspondence and comments that led up to this letter. I agree. It's a shame that the disagreement has reached this level, and I think the bishop's thoughts would have been better expressed in an essay instead of as a letter that contains some snarky jabs (e.g., the repeated use of "Congressman" and the reference to JFK's "Profiles in Courage") that seem aimed at the whole Kennedy clan as well. In choosing a letter format, I think the bishop should have used a much more pastoral tone in pointing out what he thinks Kennedy's error is.
Phillip Clark
9 years 2 months ago
I agree with Joe K.
Since when did being a believer in the Faith mean adhering to a list of prescribed "rules?" That sounds an awlful lot like what Bishop Tobin is suggesting Rep. Kennedy subscribe to. Isn't our Faith more about a Person rather than regiments and regulations?
Michael Casey
9 years 2 months ago
The sign on our local church lawn says, "Catholics can always come home".  But Bishop Tobin  seems more focused on tossing out those who don't hold his political line. Many of us left the church years ago because of the glaring disconnect of intolerant, even (sometimes) depraved preists and bishops, preaching exclusionary ideas and judgement, as though anyone who dared question their moral high ground didn't deserve membership in the Church.  One would hope that the recent scandals, which have made that high ground laughable (or not), would have left the church heirarchy humbled and repentent, not more arrogant that ever.  I guess Bishop Tobin didn't get the memo. Don't bet on too many Catholics coming home now.
Kevin Jam
9 years 2 months ago
I find this particularily disturbing in several areas, but I'll focus on two. Firstly, according to the bishop, there are no grounds ever for disagreement with the church? Even if its position on policy matters is often so flawed? What happened to the right of conscience? What happened to thinking for oursleves? Is this really healthy? Is this really where we want our people to be intellectually and spiritually? Secondly, If the bishop is going to address the congressman publically, fine-I'll grant that he is right to insist that this is now a public matter, and therefore, all all decency can go to the wind; you would expect better, but such expectations don't seem to go far these days-but address him on policy, not on his personal relationship with faith and the Church. Yes, those are areas where clergy have a responsiblity, but not in public. Public statements should concern themselves with policy. What are the bishops thoughts about healthcare legislation? Can he honestly say this is so black and white? Is it at all sane to think that there cannot be legitimate disagreement on this debate, even within the walls of Catholicism and Christendom? Those are EXACTLY the discussions we need to be having, as a Church, as a family; instead, we go right to where it hurts, the other guy's personal life. Bishop, grow up. Stop using your teaching authority to bully and humiliate, and start using it to teach, engage, and evangelize with compassion and real respect for truth-truth, bishop, that you and your brothers don't have sole claim to.  Stop acting childish and start acting like our leaders.


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