Patrick Kennedy has a remarkable opportunity. The Democrat, a congressman from Rhode Island and the son of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is currently embroiled in a scandal of his own making. I'd be delighted to be able to write a profile on his "courage" as it plays out.
First of all, contrary to the game of telephone sometimes referred to as journalism, Patrick Kennedy's bishop did not seek to publicly reprimand Kennedy for his vociferous opinions on the Church, abortion and health care. Bishop Tobin of Providence was summoned by Kennedy's public scandal. Tobin has long sought to address, privately, the scandal that is Kennedy's support for legal abortion.
But in the wake of his father's passing, in the heat of the health-care debate in Washington (considered by many an exercise in tribute to Ted Kennedy), Patrick Kennedy decided to take the opportunity to lecture the Catholic Church about morality, public policy and the killing of the unborn.
As the U.S. House of Representatives readied health-care legislation that, unless amended, would involve federal funding for abortion, Kennedy complained about the Catholic bishops' no-holds-barred opposition to such a measure. Against the largest health-care provider in the United States, a Church whose name he uses to bolster his, Kennedy railed: "You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people lifesaving health care? I thought they were pro-life?" "If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health-care reform," he insisted, going on to accuse the Church of fanning "the flames of dissent and discord."
The problem, of course, is that various iterations of the health-care legislation would allow the denial of some of the most innocent life. And Bishop Tobin, in his role as leader and spiritual father, was compelled to remind Kennedy of that fact.
And so Tobin called Kennedy's statement "irresponsible and ignorant of the facts." He explained the Church's position and he called for reparations: "I believe the Congressman owes us an apology for his irresponsible comments. It is my fervent hope and prayer that he will find a way to provide more effective and morally responsible leadership for our state."
After canceling a meeting with Tobin, Kennedy hastened to polish up his spiritual bona fides. "The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic," he asserted. Kennedy would continue the public discussion as the health-care debate began in the Senate, announcing to a local paper that Tobin had instructed priests not to give him Holy Communion. In response, Tobin released the contents of a letter that he had sent Kennedy in 2007, asking him not to receive the sacred rite. The letter read: "I am writing to you personally and confidentially as a pastor addressing a member of his flock... At the present time I have no need or intention to make this a public issue." Kennedy wrote back: "I understand your pastoral advice was confidential in nature and given with the best intentions for my personal spiritual welfare."
Well, so much for that.
But Kennedy's obstinacy -- born, most likely, out of deep confusion about what it means to be Catholic -- offers the Catholic Church a much-needed opportunity. In the days after Kennedy made his inaccurate announcement about what exactly his bishop had said to him, Pennsylvania Democrat Rep. Patrick Murphy - -another Catholic abortion-rights supporter - -received a JFK Foundation award from Patrick Kennedy's cousin, Caroline. Murphy, who voiced support for Kennedy, told the newspaper that he agrees with the Church on "99 percent of the issues."
That may be a convenient answer for a politician who wants to be known as a Catholic. But as Tobin put it in a public letter to Kennedy after his "any less of a Catholic" declaration this fall: "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."
It's hard not to think of the late Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey, another Catholic Democrat. In a speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1995, he said: "Human life cannot be measured. It is the measure itself. The value of everything else is weighed against it. The abortion debate is not about how we shall live, but who shall live. And more than that, it's about who we are."
At his funeral, Ted Kennedy was hailed as a "beacon of social justice." If the lion of the Senate's son heeded the guidance of his bishop and the words of the late governor, and became a brave pro-life Democratic leader, the Kennedy name could rightfully be just that.