Bp. Tobin publicly instructs Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI)

You may be aware that His Excellency Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of Providence, has been openly correcting a very public errant member of his flock, pro-abortion Catholic Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-RI).

Here is a message from Bishop Tobin to Rep. Kennedy posted on Rhode Island Catholic with my emphases and comments:

Dear Congressman Kennedy
Dear Congressman Kennedy:

“The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” (Congressman Patrick Kennedy)

Since our recent correspondence has been rather public, I hope you don’t mind if I share a few reflections about your practice of the faith in this public forum. I usually wouldn’t do that – that is speak about someone’s faith in a public setting – but in our well-documented exchange of letters about health care and abortion, it has emerged as an issue. I also share these words publicly with the thought that they might be instructive to other Catholics, including those in prominent positions of leadership.  [Keep a couple things in mind in these public discussions of people’s "faith".   Public Catholic figures who act in a very public way in a manner contrary to the teachings of the Church are committing scandal.  Bishop have a responsibility and right to correct public acts of public figures.  Moreover, some pro-abortion Catholic public figures will try to argue that their faith is important to them in private, but they say they cannot allow their faith to affect their public actions.  Wrong.]

For the moment I’d like to set aside the discussion of health care reform, as important and relevant as it is, and focus on one statement contained in your letter of October 29, 2009, in which you write, “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.”  [If this were a matter of trying to find a solution to, say, illiteracy or third-world debt, or even about many other social issues, sure.  But this is about abortion.] That sentence certainly caught my attention and deserves a public response, lest it go unchallenged and lead others to believe it’s true. And it raises an important question: What does it mean to be a Catholic?

 “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does. 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 communion, their unity with the Church. This principle is based on the Sacred Scripture and Tradition of the Church and is made more explicit in recent documents.

For example, the “Code of Canon Law” says, “Lay persons are bound by an obligation and possess the right to acquire a knowledge of Christian doctrine adapted to their capacity and condition so that they can live in accord with that doctrine.” (Canon 229, #1)  [The key is "adapted to their capacity and condition so that they can live…live…".  The Congressman is clearly smart enough to understand the teaching.  He has a very public condition with an eye to the common good.  He has been instructed more than once.  There is no way he doesn’t know what the Church teaches.]

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says this: “Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles, ‘He who hears you, hears me,’ the faithful receive with docility the teaching and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.” (#87)

Or consider this statement of the Church: “It would be a mistake to confuse the proper autonomy exercised by Catholics in political life with the claim of a principle that prescinds from the moral and social teaching of the Church.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2002)  [Very clear.  You can’t separate your faith as a strictly "private" matter.]

There’s lots of canonical and theological verbiage there, Congressman, but what it means is that if you don’t accept the teachings of the Church your communion with the Church is flawed, or in your own words, makes you “less of a Catholic.

But let’s get down to a more practical question; let’s approach it this way: What does it mean, really, to be a Catholic? After all, being a Catholic has to mean something, right?

Well, in simple terms – and here I refer only to those more visible, structural elements of Church membership – being a Catholic means that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.

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

Your letter also says that your faith “acknowledges the existence of an imperfect humanity.” Absolutely true. But in confronting your rejection of the Church’s teaching, we’re not dealing just with “an imperfect humanity” – as we do when we wrestle with sins such as anger, pride, greed, impurity or dishonesty. We all struggle with those things, and often fail.

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. [Very clear.] 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[Do I hear an "Amen!"?]

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. But your [public] description of your relationship with the Church is now a matter of public record, and it needs to be challenged. 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, redeem your public image, and emerge as an authentic “profile in courage,” [For younger readers, this is a reference to the book attributed to Pres. John F. Kennedy.] especially by defending the sanctity of human life for all people, including unborn children. And if I can ever be of assistance as you travel the road of faith, I would be honored and happy to do so.

Sincerely yours,

Thomas J. Tobin

Bishop of Providence

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Timbot2000 says:

    Axios! Axios! Axios!

  2. Bryan says:

    nothing like noticing the laser dot on your forehead to realize that you have been specifically singled out in public.

    Bishop Tobin and Re. Kennedy have flipped the coin…and Kennedy has elected to receive the kick….solo.

    I’m popping the popcorn to watch this particularly interesting match.

  3. JosephMary says:

    Incredible! God bless this bishop for not looking the other way and for his concern for the soul of this politician who, even though he is from a powerful family, must be instructed in the faith. Also he gives a public scandal and that must be addressed. His errors cannot continue with impunity–for his own sake as well as for the public.

  4. chironomo says:

    Something of a “line in the sand” here….

    what it means is that if you don’t accept the teachings of the Church your communion with the Church is flawed, or in your own words, makes you “less of a Catholic.”

    Exactly which “teachings of the Church” can be considered in this statement? All teachings of the Church? Just some of them? Only the really core teachings? Certainly agreed that someone who supports abortion is quite a bit less of a Catholic. Is someone who, let’s say, supports female ordination less of a Catholic? Are supporters of contraception less Catholic? Are there Bishops who would come to bat for these teachings?

  5. JoeGarcia says:

    A bishop who knows how to bish! At the risk of coming across as cynical, would it be safe to say Bp. Tobin’s missive is meant not just for Rep. Kennedy or other public Catholics of a similar stripe…but also for other bishops who might have thus far been treating other wayward Catholic politicians and their dissent with a laissez-faire approach?

    (Where might we find, say, 300 or so more like him?)

  6. Kevin L says:

    God Bless this fine Shepard! If only more of our Bishops were of such fine character and had such conviction. While it is a shame this has to be carried out in public, the good Senator has no one to blame but himself. While painful to watch, the lessons to be learned for all are great and well worth a little discomfort.

  7. jbalza007 says:

    I hope that the San Francisco Archbishop (and the other bishops as well) takes note of this!

  8. DavidJ says:

    Dear Bishops,

    Please look to the previously printed letter as an example of how to bish. Feel free to ask the Holy Spirit for courage and inspiration to follow suit.


    The Laity

  9. Tominellay says:

    Great work by Bishop Tobin! Kennedy has really underestimated his bishop, and I do predict he will not be returned to office by voters next year. No politician is a match for a good Catholic bishop.

  10. Hidden One says:

    Where did that come from?


    Washington, you have (another) problem.

  11. Girgadis says:

    I’m so pleased that Bishop Tobin used the phrase “profile in courage”. If any of
    these politicians had true courage, they would put innocent life ahead of political
    gain. Now, will the pastor of Rep. Kennedy’s church back Bishop Tobin’s words with

  12. gloriainexcelsis says:

    Evax! May his (bishops AND parish priests everywhere) tribe increase.

  13. MichaelJ says:


    You asked (and I am paraphrasing) if an individual can dissent from Catholic teaching and still be considered a Catholic. I am of the firm opinion that the answer is no. What do you think? I am defining dissent, by the way, as disagreeing with what the Church teaches (“The Church is wrong”) while correctly understanding what it is that the Church does teach. There can be, in my opinion, legitimate disagreement about what specifically the Church is teaching and what this means. To cite your example, the Church has been very clear: “Females cannot ever be ordained to the Priesthood”. What are we to think of an individual who believes that the Church is wrong?

  14. Kimberly says:

    “what is it exactly that makes you a Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage?”

    This is great! Something we should all think about.

  15. Choirmaster says:

    Would I be less of a Catholic if I supported human cloning, but only if it were Bp. Tobin?

  16. Laurinda1230 says:

    I absolutely love this letter from Bishop Tobin and I have circulated it amongst family and friends (they think I’m a Father Z nut because I constantly am sending them posts from here).

    Three cheers for Bishop Tobin! And three Our Fathers, Three Hail Marys, and Three Glory Be’s

  17. TNCath says:

    Let’s hope and pray that other bishops follow Bishop Tobin’s lead. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at the bishops’ private gatherings next week!

  18. smeej says:

    Something about his tone just doesn’t sit right, and I’m having trouble putting a finger on what it is. I absolutely agree that Congressman Kennedy needs to be called out for his statements and rebuked publicly, but it strikes me that the tone of this letter is likely to put the Congressman on the defensive.

    Is it acceptable to risk alienating the Congressman from the faith (further than he’s already alienated himself) in order to catechize everyone else on how serious an issue this really is? Or is this the kind of language it’s going to take to hopefully finally get through to one of these sorts of politicians? I absolutely support rebuking him and catechizing him and everyone else about why he’s mistaken, but is this language really the right way to do that?

    To me it sounds too much like a partially anonymous combox post to actually win over those who may agree with Congressman Kennedy. Am I just way off on this?

  19. Bill Haley says:

    What? No Kudos for Bishop Tobin?

    Really, he should have a Double Kudos!!

    Deo gratias for the courage of Bishop Tobin!

  20. mdillon says:

    Long over due. Nice to be a Bishop who acts like a Bishop!

  21. Choirmaster says:

    smeej said: To me it sounds too much like a partially anonymous combox post to actually win over those who may agree with Congressman Kennedy. Am I just way off on this?

    I think the tone you are picking up on is actually His Excellency’s attempt to communicate in a colloquial manner, i.e. in a way that a broad segment of Catholics would easily understand and identify with.

    I think he is also replying directly to the Congressman in the manner and tone in which the Congressman’s statement was originally delivered. This is not, in my opinion, done to mock that tone, but rather to match it in order to better and more clearly respond.

    Taking an academic or ecclesiastic tone might have detracted from the poignant effect this response has.

  22. mdillon says:

    (Correction) Long over due. Nice to SEE a Bishop who acts like a Bishop!

  23. GScheid says:

    Where is the letter to Pelosi and the other ‘catholics’ who voted against the abortion amendment?

  24. Charivari Rob says:

    “Boston 911 – This call is being recorded. What is the nature of your emergency?”

    “I just heard a shot being fired!”

    “In your building? Near your building? On your street?”

    “No, no… South of here. Providence direction, I’d say.”

    “What did it sound like? A single shot, multiple shots, or shots being exchanged? Did it sound like a handgun, semiautomatic rifle, machine gun?”

    “Now that I think of it, there was definitely more than one shot. First there was this little “pop”! Something low-caliber, I think. Then, there was a crisp, firm-sounding reply, sort’a’ like a warning shot coming from something high-caliber! After that, believe it or not, there was another “pop” from the first source. The fourth shot was a reply from that second source – it sounded as though they brought out the big guns. Yeah, that’s what it was… It sounded exactly like a shot across the bow from one of those big guns – you know, 16″ or something – on an Iowa-class battleship.

  25. iudicame says:

    Holy crap!


  26. Sandy says:

    Hurrah Bishop Tobin! I hope he somehow gets word of our support here, and that other bishops will not be afraid to follow his example!

  27. Nathan says:

    Bishop Tobin’s statement is a fine example of pastoral leadership and defense of the Truth of our Faith. Kudos to the bishop.

    What worries me, in the follow-up, is going to be the interpretation of His Excellency’s words by those who employ the prism of “everything is politics” as opposed to a defense of what the Catholic Church believes.

    In the past few years, the most outspoken of bishops in the US against abortion have been immediately classifed, by advocates supporting both parties, as being either “Republican Shills” or “One of Us,” depending on which side of the aisle is making the claim.

    IMO, the defense of the Church’s teaching is bigger than a political prism. I think that it would also be beneficial to the Church’s interests if this fight were not associated with a particular party (even with the gaps in abortion support between the two). I would suggest that the bishops consider adopting a strategy of political balance–for every pro-abortion politician publicly corrected in one party, another pro-abortion politican in the other is also publicly corrected. There seems to be no shortage in either.

    This, of course, omits the necessary pastoral considerations involved in a bishop’s decision to go public in admonishing a sinner. It would be, no doubt, very difficult to do, but one that might be more likely to win hearts in a widespread manner.

    Just a thought. In Christ,

  28. EXCHIEF says:

    Were this the first, or even second or third attempt by the Bp to assist the repesentative along his faith journey perhaps the tone and forum of the Bishop’s comments might be inappropriate. However, like others of his ilk (Pelosi, Biden, Kulongowski and other Kennedys) Mr Kennedy’s response to the Bishop’s efforts have been both public and arrogant. There is a point (which far too few Bishops understand) where the “common good” requires a firm but fair response. That’s what Tobin gave Kennedy and, frankly, it’s probably more than Kennedy deserved. The “common good” takes into account those faithful, true believing orthodox Catholics who despite their strength tire of the Kennedys of this world getting away with their crap.

  29. The tone of this letter is exactly what is needed in this situation. Too bad it didn’t happen 30 some odd years ago when Catholic politicians started publicly dissenting–it might have been nipped in the bud. I think this is why Mr. Kennedy was so arrogant–he had seen this happening his whole life and what did the Bishops do?

  30. edwardo3 says:

    God bless and keep Bishop Tobin, and may he reign for many, many years. Keep up the good work, Excellency, the faithful support you!

  31. robtbrown says:

    Comforting to know there’s a Catholic bishop in the East (with an Irish name) who doesn’t swoon when he hears the name of Kennedy.

    I’m not sure the situation now, but a few years ago RI had the highest percentage of Catholics in the US. It was also the most pro-abortion state.

  32. Carolina Geo says:

    A great letter, from a great shepherd! May it yield good fruit.

    Just one observation:
    “The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says this: “Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles, ‘He who hears you, hears me,’ the faithful receive with docility the teaching and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.” (#87)”

    This is why I prefer the Baltimore Catechism:
    Q. 554. Could a person who denies only one article of our faith be a Catholic?
    A. A person who denies even one article of our faith could not be a Catholic; for truth is one and we must accept it whole and entire or not at all.

    It is SO much more black-and-white!

  33. Kerry says:

    “Embrace my faith… “Ardent, practicing Catholic…” I sense either a pattern or a couple of Jeopardy answer, though in what category…?

  34. Lee says:


    Lord, fill up our cathedrae with men like this! Continue to give him and all our bishops the wisdom to withstand and humble the enemies of Holy Mother Church, the enemies of the unborn and and the corrupters of innocence.

  35. Cathomommy says:

    God bless this wonderful Bishop!!! Having grown up in the Diocese of Providence, I can attest that there will be many, many folks, who will be shocked, SHOCKED to learn that they aren’t Catholics in full communion with the Holy Mother Church just because they were raised Catholic and occasionally feel “Catholicky.” Not necessarily their own fault, mind you. Bad catechesis has perhaps lost more souls than outright temptation to do evil has.

  36. Cavaliere says:

    I hope that the San Francisco Archbishop (and the other bishops as well) takes note of this!

    I sent a letter to Archbishop Niederauer a couple weeks ago asking what he planned to do now that it was clear that his previous meeting w/ Madam Pelosi accomplished nothing. Surprisingly I have not gotten a response back, though I did the other time.

  37. Cavaliere says:

    Papa Teddy should have done his son a great favor by sharing with him his own deathbed conversion experience, or maybe he didn’t listen to him either.

  38. Kate says:

    Excellent letter! I sincerely hope Congressman Kennedy takes up the bishop’s invitation and embarks on a journey of repentance. If only more of our bishops spoke so clearly, deliberately, and spiritually! Many slothful souls would be inspired to return to our Lord and His Church. Amen!

  39. Thomas S says:


    Am I missing something? I don’t recall anything like confirmation of a deathbed conversion for Kennedy. All I remember is a self-serving letter to the Pope that whitewashed his abyssmal abortion record. I certainly hope the senator repented, but I don’t think we’ve had any word on it.

  40. Cavaliere says:

    Thomas S, that was tongue in cheek. Sorry you missed it.

  41. joan ellen says:

    Several years ago my pastor, in private, told me “Keep your mouth shut.” The tone was firm, definite, pointed. Had he used any other tone or words I would not have heard him.

    Thank you Bishop Tobin. How we need your corrections. May God continue to give you strength and courage.

  42. Tantum Ergo says:

    Bishop Tobin is right on, but does anyone actually think a public rebuke is enough? What is needed is a formal, public Decree of Excommunication. That would hit them right between the eyes: They will have to decide between their scandalous pro-abortion stance and being a member of the Catholic Church. They have to know they can’t have it both ways… It’s time to poop or get off the pot.

  43. greg the beachcomber says:

    “But, but, I’ve got a Kennedy card! It’s always worked as a Get Out of Jail Free card and a Get Out of Church Free card. You’re telling me it doesn’t work anymore?!!”

  44. MichaelJ says:

    This just in from lifesite news (http://www.lifenews.com/state4566.html):

    Providence, RI (LifeNews.com) — Rep. Patrick Kennedy is swinging back at his Catholic bishop, who rebuked him for comments he made saying the Catholic Church is not pro-life because it opposes the health care bills over abortion funding. Bishop Thomas Tobin also criticized Kennedy for canceling a meeting to discuss the situation.

    When Kennedy canceled, Bishop Tobin decided to write a letter for the local Catholic newspaper saying Kennedy’s pro-abortion stance puts him at odds with the Catholic Church.

    Kennedy said he was “not going to dignify with an answer” Tobin’s assessment that Kennedy could not be a good Catholic and still support abortion.

    In remarks to the Providence Journal newspaper, he called those comments “unfortunate,” and said, “I’m not going to engage [in] this anymore.”

    He also said he found it “very disconcerting” that Bishop Tobin would not meet with him to have a private discussion of his pro-abortion views and Catholic faith, even though it appears Kennedy is the one to have postponed their planned meeting.

    Kennedy tells the newspaper that he canceled the meeting because Tobin would not promise to keep any discussion of his views private.

    “I had initially agreed to a meeting with him [Thursday], provided we would not debate this in public in terms of my personal faith, but unfortunately, he hasn’t kept to that agreement, and that’s very disconcerting to me,” the congressman claimed.

    Michael Guilfoyle, spokesman for the diocese, told the Journal that the meeting was postponed “by mutual agreement,” but said Bishop Tobin would still welcome Kennedy.

    “The bishop’s schedule is still free on Thursday if the congressman would like to have that personal and pastoral meeting,” he said.

    Guilfoyle also indicated that Bishop Tobin would keep the conversation private but still had an obligation to respond for the church on Kennedy’s public comments attacking it for opposing the pro-abortion health care bill and questioning its pro-life credentials.

    “The contents between any personal conversation between the bishop and the congressman could certainly remain private. However, the congressman has made this a very public debate, and the bishop is responding to his public comments,” he said.

    Kennedy would not talk about whether Bishop Tobin had denied him communion or said he should refrain from receiving it.

    Kennedy said, “Those are all a subject the bishop and I will discuss, and ideally, hopefully, we will keep it between us.”

    Guilfoyle told the Journal that any discussion of communion would have to be referred to Bishop Tobin.

    Kennedy ultimately voted against the Stupak amendment to remove the abortion funding from the health care bill and subsequently voted for the bill.

    As LifeNews.com has reported, Kennedy told CNS News the Catholic Church is fanning “the flames of dissent and discord” by taking the position that it opposed the health care bills in Congress because of their abortion funding.

    “You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life saving health care? I thought they were pro-life?” he said.

    Tobin called on Kennedy to issue an apology and said he is a “disappointment” because of his pro-abortion voting record.

  45. Why seren;t the bishops like this when it came to Congressman Kennedy’s father? This letter from His Excellency undermines the support for the public funeral and burial accorded to Senator Kennedy. Reading Bishop Tobin’s letter, the seantor should have been denied both the Catholic Mass and burial- his sins were the same as his son’s, yet he got a public pass.

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