The Representative May Not Be A Catholic, But Is The Bishop A Protestant?

That seems to be one question surfacing as the Rep. Kennedy-Bishop Tobin discussion continues apace.

I find myself vaguely sympathetic to the bishop. As a fellow worker in the vineyard, I see many of my sister and brother believers emphasize their children’s schooling, sports, and activities above what our parishes provide. Financial support is atrocious in some quarters. And twenty to forty percent attendance is, to borrow a term minted by Catholic Right, a scandal. Not only do I think most Catholic families would be better catechized at my respective parishes, but I think they would find their lives more fulfilling and ultimately more fun. But I have to realize that not every Catholic parish or even diocese conducts evangelization as if eternal life depended on it.

Another point for Bishop Tobin: I read his whole letter earlier this morning, and I found it to be more balanced than it has been reported in the blogosphere and other media. It’s also not a bolt from the blue for Mr Kennedy–it seems to be part of a continuing exchange. So there’s some helpful context for all of us commentators to access, as well as other content we can’t.

Though troubling, I’d like to believe that this comment from Bishop Tobin has a better context than SGCS*:

If you freely choose to be a Catholic, it means you believe certain things, you do certain things. If you cannot do all that in conscience, then you should perhaps feel free to go somewhere else.

Joe McFaul at dotCommonweal offers a more Catholic response, if you will:

I didn’t freely choose the Church. I was blessed by the Grace of the Holy Spirit at Baptism to make that choice. The Church chose me. I have nowhere else to go.

Now let’s get to the Catholic Right, which may or may not include Bishop Tobin. I honestly don’t know. But I do know that the Catholic Right includes much of the blogosphere. So this one’s for you, if you’re still with me:

I do think there’s something not quite in tune with the modernist notion of just telling people to just leave Catholicism. Even politicians like Mr Kennedy. Sure, in the past, when the Church was confronted with people it believed were heretics, or worse, disobedient, it might have just executed them. Several times I’ve been invited by internet acquaintances to leave the Church. (They probably wish they could rack me.) When I bother to respond, it’s usually something along the lines of a theologically nuanced, “Nyah, nyah, you can’t get me.”

Mr Kennedy is somewhat in the same boat. It’s easy enough to disagree with his political position (which I do) and say he’s not a Catholic. (Which is wishful thinking–we’re stuck with him.) But is it true? Was he or wasn’t he chosen by God? And ultimately, he can move beyond this conversation and thumb his nose at political pro-lifers. And what will have been accomplished? Just more anger self-injected to the anti-abortion bloodstream.

At root, I think Bishop Tobin’s problem is that he’s shot the wad on persuasion when it comes to one of his high-profile sheep. He’s taken his campaign public. I think this is an error, even if Mr Kennedy did it first. This whole thing is unseemly, largely because the spectators of various ideologies are treating this as entertainment/a sales opportunity/the bishop leading a cheer at a pep rally. Personally, I would have liked some more bishops or a pope or two call out the last American president on Iraq and torture. But that would have been, admittedly, entertainment.

I think the occurence of Catholic politicians supporting a secular “right” to abortion is troubling and unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s a scandal. Unless, that is, you adopt the notion of “scandal” as a politically correct term for “doing stuff I disagree with.” We know some Catholic politicians support abortion rights. It’s not a surprise. That’s not the same thing as performing an abortion, consenting to the procedure for oneself and one’s unborn child, or otherwise being directly involved in the act. When the chit-chat gets ramped up with words like “scandal” then usually people have stopped talking with each other, and begun talking at the other.

I also have to comment that if the energy is being taken up polarizing a discussion that goes nowhere, I have to wonder if the participants to such a discussion are not enablers of the abortion industry to a similar extent as politicians might be. Lacking a constitutional amendment to protect the unborn, all the peripheral issues still leave nearly everybody in a situation to choose or not to choose. Parents can be notified and still choose abortion for their daughter. I wonder how many pro-life clinics notify parents only to have the young woman wisked away to PP. Poor people can still be supported by the donations of celebrity pro-choicers and other wealthy persons. A person can still view photos and information on human gestation and still respond, “Heh. I still want an abortion.” In turn, there’s nothing theoretically stopping today’s 3,000-some women from all saying, “I think I’ll keep the baby.” Even having a lack of acceptable pre-natal care, no family support, or worries about the future.

Do any readers here see something redeemable in the bishop’s comment? Or a suggestion as to where this dialogue should go next?


* Small Church, Getting Smaller

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Ministry, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to The Representative May Not Be A Catholic, But Is The Bishop A Protestant?

  1. R.C. says:

    I disagree with your view, but you have taken a forthright, cool, reasoning approach in describing your view, which merits applause.

    Here are my points of disagreement. You cite Joe McFaul at dotCommonweal favorably in saying:

    I didn’t freely choose the Church. I was blessed by the Grace of the Holy Spirit at Baptism to make that choice. The Church chose me. I have nowhere else to go.

    You go on to add…,

    It’s easy enough to disagree with his political position (which I do) and say he’s not a Catholic. …But is it true? Was he or wasn’t he chosen by God?

    …and your view seems to be summarized when you label the view that Kennedy is “not Catholic” as “wishful thinking–we’re stuck with him.”

    But is that true?

    Jesus’ words in John 15 speak of whether a person “abides in Me,” not as a status guaranteed to continue forever once a person is baptized, but rather as a status which a person can revoke of their own free will: “If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.”

    Surely Kennedy was “chosen by God”; and surely he was, at that time at least, “in the vine,” which is to say, Catholic.

    But we have no assurance that Kennedy has stayed “in the vine,” nor that he will remain so, if he happens at this moment to be “in the vine.”

    Perhaps I have misread you, but your words seem to imply that because Kennedy was baptized a Catholic and publicly identifies as Catholic in upbringing and culture, that he irrevocably is a Catholic whether we like it or not, and no matter what choices he himself makes in the matter! (Which would be a sort of Catholic version of the Once-Saved-Always-Saved doctrine of some Protestants: Once-Catholic-Always-Catholic.)

    You seem a reasoned sort, so you can’t possibly have meant that…but I’m not sure what you did mean, if it wasn’t that.

    Perhaps you mean that if, while claiming to be “Catholic,” Kennedy behaves in ways that are antithetical to the Catholic faith as Magisterially defined, obedient Catholics are not allowed to say, “Hey, that’s not what Catholicism says or is about,” because Kennedy’s cultural associations with Catholicism make whatever he does by definition Catholic? …that, because Kennedy was baptized a Catholic and comes from a Catholic family, what he does is automatically “Catholic” in some sense, and constitutes a valid data-point for describing what “Catholicism” is?

    If that’s what you mean, then I think you’re using a different definition of the word “Catholic” than the bishop is.

    If the above attempts to understand your meaning come close at all, then I suspect by the adjective “Catholic” you mean “commonly associated with the behaviors or opinions of many (not necessarily most) persons raised in Catholic households in the U.S. during the last fifty years.” In that case Kennedy is surely Catholic, and has little choice in being so.

    But I think the bishop is defining “Catholic” more concretely, by using the definition of those authorized to say officially what is and isn’t Catholic.

    And of course by that standard, either Kennedy’s abortion stance, or his stance on the proper duties of government, isn’t Catholic. (In so far as Kennedy either believes the unborns lack rights, or that it isn’t the proper role of government to use force to protect innocent and defenseless persons from being killed by others.)

    Again, I may have misunderstood what you mean by “Catholic,” and if so, I apologize: I don’t mean to argue by means of a straw-man.

    But if I have understood correctly, then while you’re entitled to your own definition of Catholic in your writing, I think the bishop was correct to use the definition he used. He is, after all, responsible for doing what he can not only to save unborn persons, but Kennedy’s soul.

    In that department, I found his remarks to Kennedy entirely heartening and edifying, and so thoroughly gentle and collegial in tone that, had they been delivered with any softer a touch, their ability to communicate meaning would have been undermined.

    If Kennedy himself found something in those remarks uncongenial, it can only have been the logical implications, not the tone.

    But those logical implications seem to me to be:
    (a.) entirely in accord with Catholic teaching;
    (b.) obligatory for the bishop to relate to Kennedy, normally privately and for Kennedy’s sake; but,
    (c.) obligatory for the bishop to publicly clarify if Kennedy’s own public behavior or comments might give the Catholic faithful any false impression of the requirements of the Catholic faith

    So, given the truth of the words and his obligation to say them, the bishop can’t be held at fault for stating the relevant facts and exhibiting the implications, especially not in such a gracious manner. Even in defamation lawsuits, truth is an absolute defense…and the bishop was hardly saying anything defamatory.

    Anyhow, thank heaven no American cleric these days — whether commenting on the Iraq war, or abortion, or anything else — sounds like St. Jerome did when educating Helvidius. Check them out for a sense of perspective: That would be spectator blood-sport.

  2. Todd says:

    “Jesus’ words … not as a status guaranteed to continue forever once a person is baptized, but rather as a status which a person can revoke of their own free will.”

    This is a good point. Christians have wrestled with it from the very beginning, starting with Peter. And my question would be: has Mr Kennedy explicitly revoked his standing? In professing Catholicism, it would seem he has not. In the rush to get rid of him, and people like him, the Catholic Right have set themselves ahead of Christ in rushing to Judgment, as it were. Even in a bishop, that might be unseemly. Though, to his credit, Bishop Tobin does mince words around the question.

    Another point would be the nature of sin and church membership. Divorced and remarried Catholics are not permitted sacraments, but are they outside the Church if they choose to attend Mass, educate their children, and contribute to the material and spiritual support of the parish and Church?

    A more applicable example: let’s say you or I commit a grave sin. Are we, by our own choice, non-Catholics until we celebrate sacramental reconciliation?

    I would submit that committing sin amounts to a certain fracturing within us and our relationships with others, with the Church, and with God. However, who gets to determine that status short of death or the Final Judgment? I think it’s dangerously presumptive for some Catholics to excommunicate others. It might even be sinful.

    As for St Jerome; sure, but I’d also like to see the confrontation between Catherine of Siena and Gregory XI. The things is, those saints, especially perhaps in hindsight, were quite persuasive. No modern bishop has yet to accomplish that.

  3. Harry says:

    Here is what I don’t get.

    Patrick Kennedy did indeed vote against Stupak-Pitts. But once that amendment was in the bill, he turned around and voted for health care reform, which the bishops have long advocated, with Stupak-Pitts attached, which the bishops also advocated.

    There were scores upon scores of Republican House members (many of them Catholic) who voted in favor of Stupak-Pitts, but then tured around and voted against advancing an unquestionably pro-life bill to the Senate.

    Who cast the “pro-life” vote?

  4. Harry says:

    And by the way, Stupak-Pitts still allows the killing of innocent life in the womb if that life was conceived by rape or incest.

    So Bishop Tobin is allowed to compromise on this issue, and Kennedy isn’t?

  5. R.C. says:

    I think nobody’s allowed to compromise, but the USCCB is applying the double-effect principle.

    Just like you can vote for a pro-choice, anti-war politician if the only other candidate is pro-choice, pro-war, you can support an “almost completely but not quite completely pro-life health care bill” if the alternative is an abortion-funding health care bill.

    • Harry says:

      Ah. So the bishops decided that some lives in the womb are worth sacrificing for the greater good of universal health care.

      Thanks for explaining that.

  6. R.C. says:

    Todd, thanks for your reply!

    You state:

    And my question would be: has Mr Kennedy explicitly revoked his standing? In professing Catholicism, it would seem he has not.

    Hmm. Something about that phrasing makes my brain itch a little. Isn’t that more like a Protestant-esque view of membership?

    I mean, it suggests that Mr. Kennedy can’t revoke his Catholicism by any means other than by formally saying “I’m not a Catholic.” It suggests that if he were to say, “I’m pro-war, pro-abortion, pro-racism, pro-Holocaust, and I think the Virgin Birth’s a ridiculous myth…but I’m still Catholic!” that he’d still be Catholic in actuality. (I know, I know, what he’s done isn’t remotely as extreme as all that. I’m just using an extreme example because it clarifies the principle.)

    I think Mr. Kennedy, and all the rest of us, don’t get to be Catholic merely by saying that we are. That would make us each our own authority on what it means to be Catholic — which is why I said that it sounds like a vaguely Protestant position.

    I always thought that we choose whether to “remain in the vine” by whether we choose to remain in accord with Jesus’ definition of what it means to be Catholic, as taught to us by the Magisterium.

    If the Church tells us that, with respect to subject-matter X which is a grave and important matter, belief Y and action Z are unavoidable and obligatory, then what happens if we don’t believe Y, or don’t do Z?

    I think it depends on whether our failure to believe Y is a matter of doubt, or of firm opposition. And with respect to action Z, I think it depends whether we merely failed to do Z, or whether we adamantly and intentionally oppose doing Z.

    Somewhere in his first letter to Corinth — chapter 5, I think — St. Paul comes down pretty hard on a guy who’s having sex with his stepmother; in fact, he tells the other Corinthian believers to excommunicate the guy and even to shun him.

    I gather Paul had more information about the situation than we do, but I suspect that if it were a situation where the offending person had been drunk, and got seduced, and later felt horrible about it, et cetera, the Apostle wouldn’t have excommunicated him. Lack of intent prevents a sin from being mortal, and repentance indicates that one is not willfully separating oneself from Christ. (In fact, even if the guy got fatally run over by a camel on his way to confession, I’m told the confession would still “count” as a sort of confession-by-desire.) So a person who merely “slips into sin,” or even a person who briefly rebels but then repents, is not divorcing himself from Christ and His Church.

    I suspect that Paul ordered this fellow excommunicated because the sin was willful, ongoing, unrepentant, and the guy involved was acting as if there wasn’t anything wrong with it…and Paul wanted to make it perfectly clear that there was, so that, in the end, the guy might eventually repent, and his soul be saved.

    So, to bring it back to Mr. Kennedy: If (to once again clarify a principle by using an extreme example) Bishop Tobin had stated, “Mr. Kennedy, I can see into your heart and you’re obviously intentionally and knowingly opposing the Church on this, and you keep refusing to repent and show contrition. By doing this, you have temporarily put yourself outside Christ and His Church, and only by repenting and showing contrition and conversion can you restore fellowship…!” then, wow, that would be over-the-top. The bishop can’t see what’s in Mr. Kennedy’s heart, and therefore cannot know with perfect certainty to what degree Mr. Kennedy’s public opposition to the Church’s teaching on abortion is (a.) informed, (b.) intentional, and (c.) unrepentant.

    But what the bishop actually said was more (very much!) more nuanced. In fact, it seems slightly self-contradictory at times.

    On the one hand, the bishop states,

    Congressman, I’m not sure whether or not you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic, so let me ask…

    …and later adds,

    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.

    On the other hand, the bishop notes:

    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. …your description of your relationship with the Church is now a matter of public record… 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…

    So the earlier quotes make the bishop sound uncertain as to what Kennedy’s status is vis-a-vis the Church, whereas the last two express confidence that Kennedy has, at minumum, damaged his communion with Christ’s church.

    Yet even then, the bishop doesn’t say that Kennedy has severed communion with Christ, but “diminished” it:

    Your position is unacceptable to the Church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church.

    In the end, then, it looks to me that the bishop suspects Kennedy either has, or is at risk of, thoroughly severing his spiritual union with Christ, but is uncertain and unwilling to go that far. He therefore asserts that the congressman has a diminished communion, and invites repentance from that.

    I suppose that’s a pretty safe conclusion for the bishop make, or even for us to make (tho’ it’s not our job to say anything to Kennedy about it). I mean, if I know that my willful sin diminishes my communion with Christ, and keenly feel that diminution even as I’m driving over to the parish to confess, how could it not do the same for Kennedy, who apparently doesn’t even intend to change his ways?

  7. Todd says:

    “Isn’t that more like a Protestant-esque view of membership?”

    That’s why people have criticized Bishop Tobin for talking like a “protestant.”

    You’ve offered a long comment here, and I don’t have a problem with that as such. It is hard to follow your point; maybe I’m just having a dim day here.

    Ever think of starting your own blog?

  8. Harry says:

    What the heck does “diminished communion” mean? Isn’t that like “diminished pregnancy”? You are either in communion or you are not.

    This is very much like Archbishop Naumann “inviting” then-Gov. Sebelius to not receive communion until she repents vetoing a bill that wouldn’t have passed constitutional muster.

    The good archbishop did not go so far as a formal interdict, since that opens all sorts of rights under canon law for the then-gov. So he chose the easy way and sought to convict her in the kangaroo court of right-wing public opinion.

  9. Jim McK says:

    V2 clearly recognizes that not every Catholic is a ‘good’ Catholic:

    “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart.” All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.” LG 14

    There are varying degrees of communion, as becomes even more obvious in the discussion of our separated brothers and sisters, and the unbaptized in the paragraphs following this. I suspect most of us fall short of the fullest communion that might be possible if we used all of the means available to us.

    The conception of the Church as an “invisible” body united by intangibles like communion, is very Protestant. Catholic teaching, esp pre V2, is always concerned with the visible body, and I do not think that anyone would even want to deny that the visible body contains sinners and people mired in ignorance or otherwise holding differing positions. I am not sure why a bishop would want to point out a particular individual as having crossed some line of membership.

    Jesus told a parable about letting the wheat and the weeds grow together, and they would be separated at the harvest. That is who we are, wheat and weeds growing together, and God will judge at the harvest.

  10. Jimmy Mac says:

    Catholic used to mean universal. Now it means a type of Christian institution that has become narrow in its thinking, closed to the Spirit, unable to recognize the richness of diversity or the beauty of creation. Catholic Christian is a type of Christian. Christianity is what we have in common with many other types of Christians. Catholic is only an adjective describing Christian. Roman Catholic (another defining adjective of Christian) many times refers to those Catholics stuck in old wineskins, in narrow vision and thinking. Catholic Christian in the original sense of the term is one who is ecumenical, open, all-embracing of race, of language, of new insights, of cultures (multi-dimensional).

    David L. Corcoran in “Responses” portion of In the Meantime #8.

    Catholicism is engaged in a long, historical conversation, and we all are invited by Jesus to join that conversation. While participating in that conversation, we must understand the need for new knowledge, new insights, and new connections. As the Italian bishops said at the time of Vatican II, “Non basta conservare!” It is not enough simply to conserve or preserve.

  11. Tony says:

    Todd, there are a couple of points that you made with which I take issue. One is your constant use of the term “political pro-life” or “political right”. You seem to give the impression that it’s acceptable to be pro-life in church, but not pro-life in the public square. This is a fallacy put to rest by our Holy Father, himself.

    A person who lives in sin and ministers to the church does not cause scandal as long as their sin remains private. We have had cases recently of a high profile sister who was relieved of her catechetical ministry because of her published views on female “ordination” that she would not repudiate.

    Public adherence to unrepentant manifest grave sin needs to be dealt with publicly (after a private “come home to Jesus” period). If the very high profile sinner refuses to repent, he must be inflicted with greater and greater disciplines until he either repents, shuts up about his support for the sinful issue, or is finally issued a writ of excommunication.

    That is the next step.

  12. Sam Schmitt says:

    Jimmy Mac,

    True, it may not be enough simply to “preserve or conserve,” but this assumes that you are doing that much in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s