A month of harsh words between U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy and Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin escalated Sunday when the bishop acknowledged asking Kennedy not to receive Holy Communion because of the Democratic lawmaker's support for abortion rights.
The bishop's attempt to publicly shame Kennedy on his abortion stance comes just a few months after the death of his father, Sen. Edward Kennedy. Tobin told The Associated Press that the younger Kennedy, who has been in and out of treatment for substance abuse, has been acting "erratically."
Their dispute began in October when Kennedy criticized the nation's Catholic bishops for threatening to oppose an overhaul of the nation's health care system unless lawmakers included tighter restrictions on abortion, which have since been added to the House version of the bill. Tobin said he felt Kennedy made an unprovoked attack on the church and demanded an apology.
"The point is, because of his obstinate ... public support of abortion, which is clearly contrary to an essential teaching of the church of a matter of critical morality ... he is then not properly prepared to receive Holy Communion," Tobin said in an interview Sunday. "No one has a right to receive Holy Communion."
The feud escalated after Kennedy told The Providence Journal in a story published Sunday that Tobin instructed him not to receive Communion. Kennedy also claimed the bishop had told diocesan priests not to give him communion, an allegation that Tobin denied.
Kennedy and his spokeswoman did not return repeated calls from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Tobin said he wrote Kennedy in February 2007 and asked him not to receive Communion because of his voting record supporting abortion rights.
The bishop said his letter was prompted by a statement two months earlier from the nation's Catholic bishops. They said that believers who knowingly and consistently break with church teachings on moral issues such as abortion should refrain from Communion, the focus of Roman Catholic worship.
Abortion is a major concern for the Catholic bishops because opposition to the procedure is based on the church's earliest teachings on preserving human life, which have not changed. By comparison, church teaching on the death penalty is not as definitive and has changed over time, making it difficult for church leaders to demand that Catholic lawmakers agree.
Only a few U.S. bishops have said they would outright deny Holy Communion to a Catholic lawmaker who supports policies that violate church teaching. A larger number of prelates have publicly asked a Catholic politician to voluntarily abstain from the sacrament.
For example, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Diocese of Kansas City in Kansas had repeatedly said publicly that former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, should stop taking Communion until she changes her stance. Sebelius is now President Barack Obama's secretary of Health and Human Services.
Politicians wrestling with issue
Other Catholic politicians have wrestled with the same issue Kennedy faces.
In 1984, former Democratic New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Catholic who supported abortion rights and was at the time a potential presidential candidate, delivered a speech at the University of Notre Dame explaining that Catholic lawmakers shouldn't be pressured by church leaders to work for anti-abortion legislation. He said Sunday it's dangerous for the church to pressure politicians because of the potential for unintended consequences.
"If you're required (by the church) to make everybody follow your Catholic role, then nobody would vote for Catholics because it's clear that when you get the authority, you're going to be guided by your faith," the former governor told The Associated Press.
Cuomo said there are two positions a politician can take: They can oppose church doctrine outright or, as he did, accept church teachings personally but refuse to carry them into the public arena where they would affect people of every faith.
"Don't ask me to make everybody live by it because they are not members of the church," Cuomo said. "If that were the operative rule, how could you get any Catholic politician in office? And would that be better for the Catholic church?"