Catholic Bishop: 'I’m Disappointed in Congressman Kennedy’s Rather Clear and Consistent Support of Abortion Throughout His Career'

By Pete Winn | November 10, 2009 | 10:29 PM EST

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin (Photo courtesy of Diocese of Providence, R.I.)

( – A planned meeting later this week between the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, R.I., and Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), has been called off. But Bishop Thomas Tobin told that he would still like to meet with the Catholic congressman about his support of abortion.
The bishop, who had tough words for Kennedy in an open letter to the congressman Monday, said he would especially like to talk to Kennedy about the vote he cast last Saturday against the pro-life Stupak-Pitts amendment to the health-care bill.

“Obviously we’re very disappointed that Congressman Kennedy did not support the pro-life amendment, especially when a majority of his colleagues did,” Tobin said in an interview Tuesday.

The amendment, which was sponsored by Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), would prohibit federal funds from paying for any part of a health insurance plan that covers abortions. It was approved on a 240-194 vote. Sixty-four Democrats voted for it.

“We were hoping that (Kennedy) would support the pro-life emphasis on health care, but he chose not to,” Tobin said. “So, as I’ve expressed rather clearly, I’m disappointed in Congressman Kennedy’s rather clear and consistent support of abortion throughout his career.”

Kennedy was one of 50 Catholic congressmen--including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.)--to vote against the pro-life amendment, despite calls from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to support it. 

In a  letter signed by Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadephia, chairman of the bishops' committee on pro-life activities, and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., had “strongly urged” the congressmen to vote for the Stupak-Pitts amendment, which they said was “an essential improvement in health-care reform legislation” that would “keep in place” freedom of conscience provisions.

Tobin, who had also issued a call to Rhode Island congressmen to support the pro-life amendment, said he was supposed to meet with Kennedy “later in the week,” but the meeting was postponed by mutual decision on Monday. Tough questions, however, remain to be asked.

“Certainly, when we have the occasion to meet in some kind of personal and pastoral setting, I would like to talk to him about his status in the church, his activity in the church and how he can reconcile that with a rather consistent support of abortion throughout his career,” Tobin said. 

The meeting was originally scheduled after Tobin and Kennedy traded letters publicly in the aftermath of an interview Kennedy gave to in October, in which the Rhode Island Democrat criticized the Catholic Church for its position on the health-care bill, saying it was “fanning the flames of discord and dissent” for taking a position against any health reform that allowed federal funding of abortion.

Tobin’s Oct 23 letter to Kennedy called on him to apologize for his statements.

Then, in an Oct. 24 letter to Tobin, Kennedy, the son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), said his comments “were never intended to slight the church.” 

“Certainly, I recognize that the church has always stood for health care reform as is evidenced by the statement of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops,” Kennedy wrote.

“My hope is that our church will be true to its millennia-old mission of feeding the hungry, clothing the poor and caring for those less fortunate than ourselves,” he said. “My Catholic faith is based on these foundation principles.”

Kennedy indicated he refused to accept the Church’s pro-life teachings.

“While I greatly respect the Catholic Church and its leaders, like many Rhode Islanders, the fact that I disagree with the hierarchy of the church on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic,” Kennedy wrote. “I embrace my faith which acknowledges the existence of an imperfect humanity.”

But in a tough letter back to Kennedy published Tuesday on the diocesan Web site, Tobin was blunt. 

“Well in fact, congressman, in a way it does (make you less of a Catholic)," the bishop wrote. “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 community, their unity with the Church.”
“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 decisions 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."

Tobin also pressed Kennedy to consider whether he was a Catholic.

“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 you 'embrace your faith.' Terrific. But if you don't fulfill the basic requirements of membership, what is it exactly that makes you Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage?”

On Tuesday, Kennedy told the Associated Press he found it “very disconcerting" that the bishop was talking publicly “about my faith.”

The bishop, meanwhile, refused to condemn Kennedy outright for his position.

And when asked Tobin “Can a Catholic member of Congress morally vote for a health-care bill that they know would permit federal funding of insurance plans that cover abortion?” the bishop stopped short of saying that a lawmaker’s support for pro-abortion legislation was a mortal sin.

“I think in approaching any piece of legislation, the whole legislation has to be taken into consideration,” Tobin told “Now obviously, the bishops have been very clear about saying that we would not support health-care legislation that in any way increases access to abortion or provides taxpayer funds for abortion, so we would certainly oppose that kind of legislation and we would encourage Catholic legislators to do the same.” 

The bishop, however, did not completely rule out the general possibility that he -- or another bishop – might have to take some kind of action in the future against a Catholic politician who blatantly and publicly disregards Catholic teaching on abortion.

But Tobin said it is important to take “a gradual approach to someone who does not accept the teachings of the Church”-- especially someone in public leadership, like Kennedy.

“I think the first step is to try to engage the person in personal conversation and correspondence, and I have done that with the congressman,” Tobin said. “And the next step is perhaps to exercise the teaching office of the bishop and do some public challenging and we’ve done that as well. Where it goes from there, I think, depends so much on each individual case and it’s a judgment that individual bishops might differ about -- about exactly what to do.”

Kennedy, meanwhile, was far from being alone as a pro-abortion Catholic who voted against the pro-life Stupak-Pitts amendment. Other Catholic House members voting “No” were: 

Reps. Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.); Xavier Becerra (D-Calif,); Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.); Robert Brady (D-Pa.); Michael Capuano (D-Mass); William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.); Gerry Connolly (D-Va.); Joe Courtney (Conn.); Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.); William Delahunt (D-Mass.); Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.); Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.); Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.); Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.); John D. Hall (N.Y.); Phil Hare (D-Ill.); Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.); Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.); Mary Jo Kilroy (D-Ohio); Ann D. Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.); Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio); John Larson (D-Conn.); Manuel Luján (D-N.M.); Edward Markey (D-Mass.); Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.); Betty McCollum (D-Minn.); James McGovern (D-Mass.); George Miller (D-Calif.); Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.); James Moran (D-Va.); Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.); Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.); Frank Pallone (D-N.J.); Bill Pascrell (D-N.J); Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.); Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.); Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.); Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.); Jose Serrano (D- N.Y.); Joe Sestak (D-Pa.); Jackie Speier (D- Calif.); Mike Thompson (D-Calif.); Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.); Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.); Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) and Diane Watson (D-Calif.).