Friday, November 13, 2009

PROVIDENCE, R.I. | Thomas Tobin, the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, has made a career out of putting politicians in his cross hairs, but his latest battle over abortion threatens to spiritually exile Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, a son of the nation’s most famous Roman Catholic family.

The feud between the bishop and the Democratic lawmaker over a proposal expanding the nation’s health insurance system has escalated to the point where Bishop Tobin has publicly questioned Mr. Kennedy’s faith and membership in the church.

It’s an uncomfortable tangle of faith and politics for a congressman whose uncle, John F. Kennedy, was elected the first Roman Catholic president in 1960.

“I don’t think there’s any winner here,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a church observer and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “I think this is the kind of thing that would be better discussed between a member of Congress and his bishop behind closed doors.”

Mr. Kennedy is among several Catholic politicians to clash with their bishops over abortion, which the church considers a paramount moral evil not open for negotiation. Fewer than 20 of the roughly 200 bishops overseeing U.S. dioceses have threatened to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion, Father Reese said.

“I don’t think you’ll find widespread support among Catholics for this,” he said.

Mr. Kennedy in an interview with last month criticized the nation’s Catholic bishops for threatening to oppose a reform of the health care system — a goal the church supports — unless it included tighter restrictions on publicly financed abortions.

It was a loaded statement by a congressman representing the most heavily Roman Catholic state. And it drew the attention of Bishop Tobin, who in his four years in Providence has been an outspoken critic of Gov. Don Carcieri for launching a crackdown on illegal immigrants, bashed the state’s attorney general for supporting gay marriage and excoriated former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani over his abortion stance.

An angry Bishop Tobin fired back, calling Mr. Kennedy ignorant of church policy. He asked for an apology and a meeting.

In a letter, Mr. Kennedy agreed to meet and said his Catholic faith is founded on the principles of feeding the hungry, clothing the poor and caring for the less fortunate. Mr. Kennedy voted against an amendment tightening abortion restrictions, but he voted in favor of the final bill that included those restrictions.

“While I greatly respect the Catholic Church and its leaders … the fact that I disagree with the hierarchy of the church on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic,” he wrote.

But their planned meeting fell apart earlier this week, amid mutual recriminations.

Ann Doherty, who attended a morning Mass in Providence, said she thought both men were speaking from their hearts. She opposes abortion but is uncomfortable imposing her choices on other people.

“We have a history in the church of people who have spoken out for the things they believed in. And some of them, we’ve made saints out of. And others, we haven’t.”

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