Kennedy, Catholics and Communion

Bishop Thomas Tobin’s request that U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), refrain from asking for Holy Communion seems, to me, to be an eminently reasonable one. While not a Catholic, I understand the hierarchical nature of the church and the role that doctrine plays within it.

To put it simply, and with the greatest of respect, the Catholic Church is not a place where “free-thinking” about doctrinal issues is encouraged. There is such thing as absolutely truth and not all things are relative or left to the discretion of the believer. As such it seems to me that Rep. Kennedy -- should he continue to choose to call himself a Catholic -- should show appropriate deference to church teachings, in this particular instance that life begins at conception and abortion, therefore, is a sin.

By asking Kennedy to act of his own volition, rather than threaten to deny him the sacraments or ordering those subservient to him in the church to refuse to offer them, Bishop Tobin is encouraging the Congressman to consider his commitment to his faith -- something one should argue is the appropriate role for a member of the clergy. Instead, the issue is being spun as a case of a church trying to impose its will on freely elected politicians who represent a cross-section of the world’s religions, something prohibited by the U.S. Constitution, or so most people believe, pointing to Jefferson’s use of the phrase “wall of separation between Church and State” to underline the point.

Unfortunately for them, the line as written appears nowhere in the Constitution. Jefferson, it needs to be said again and again, was not in the United States when the Constitution was written and was not part of the Constitutional Convention. The phrase reflects his own opinion, written while president, in a 1802 letter to a Baptist congregation in Danbury, Connecticut.

In that same letter, Jefferson opines that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God,” which, in this case, can be construed to include Bishop Tobin, acting for the Roman Catholic Church. Nowhere does he suggest that the church, any church, should be prohibited from enforcing its own disciplines within its own walls among its own members, even where matters of public policy are concerned.

In civil society we look to our institutions of faith to define the right and wrong positions on moral issues, like abortion. The secularists would likely have it otherwise but the establishment of morality is not a state function. The state’s coercive powers make that a dangerous position to advocate, whereas, to paraphrase Stalin “How many tanks does the pope have?”

The purpose of the First Amendment, said those present at its creation, was to protect the faithful from coercion by the state, to provide freedom of conscience so that, for example, Catholics could not be forced to become Anglicans, as had occurred almost 250 years previously during the reign of Henry VIII. It’s purpose is not, as currently construed by the dominant political and media culture, to protect the state from interference from the church, as broadly defined, though it is difficult to see how Bishop Tobin’s request constitutes interference. If Congressman Kennedy wishes his church to consider him a Catholic in good standing, then he best pay attention to its concerns and act accordingly.

Peter Roff is a senior fellow at the Institute for Liberty and a former senior political writer for United Press International.