Patrick Kennedy, His Bishop, and Being “Catholic”
There’s an interesting article today about the public rift playing out in Rhode Island between Patrick Kennedy (son of the late Senator) and his Bishop, Thomas Tobin. Apart from its visibility, there’s nothing all that new here (at least by recent standards). This quote from the Bishop did stand out to me, though:
“If you freely choose to be a Catholic, it means you believe certain things, you do certain things,” Bishop Tobin said on WPRO, a Providence radio station. “If you cannot do all that in conscience, then you should perhaps feel free to go somewhere else.”
The casual dismissiveness of the Bishop’s attitude really struck a chord with me, because it reminded me of so many conversations I’ve had with conservative Catholics, both in the comments section here, and in other (mostly on-line) exchanges at other sites.
In recent years, I have, more than a few times, been asked to explain why I do not “go somewhere else.” Most of the time, my disagreements with the hierarchy have centered around the Church’s treatment of contraception (particularly in the context of HIV prevention) and homosexuality, though I also have had occasion to disagree with the weight some bishops have assigned to the abortion issue (as well as the aforementioned issues) as against other questions (such as the environment, economic justice, war, torture, etc.). Over the course of my adult life, the public face of the Church has become increasingly distant from my own political beliefs and priorities. The days seem long past when the USCCB could publish a document like Economic Justice for All, or when I could (as I did when I was about 8 years old) march with my local archbishop (Hunthausen) in a nuclear freeze protest at the Bangor submarine base. We on the Catholic left need to face the fact that the Church’s hierarchy simply feels much more comfortable with the political agenda of the Republican Party than it does with that of the Democrats. Abortion, stem cells, and opposition to gay marriage just matter more to most of the bishops than universal health care or workers’ rights. (Hence the full episcopal press on the Stupak amendment, followed by a pretty stony silence on the merits of the reform bill itself.)
Given the face the Church increasingly presents to the world, part of me agrees with Bishop Tobin when he says that to call oneself Catholic while rejecting this constellation of views and priorities is a form of “false advertising,” particularly when I have no intention of turning my back on views (e.g., that an HIV positive husband can and should use a condom when having sex with his wife) that my conscience tells me with no equivocation are correct. And yet — to my occasional discomfort — I continue to call myself “Catholic.” I attend mass at my parish every Sunday. I even bring my kids, much to the confusion of my Hindu wife, who frequently wonders out loud why I would pass on this sort of conflicted existence to the next generation of the Penalver family. I share her bewilderment, and yet I find that I cannot do otherwise. I certainly cannot see myself suddenly changing my path and attending services at the Episcopalian parish around the corner from St. James.
This is a long, very round-about way of getting to the point of this post. Bishop Tobin’s attitude towards being Catholic — accept teachings X, Y, and Z, or go to another institution that does not affirm them — strikes me as nothing if not supremely un-Catholic in its ethos. I’ve always (probably unfairly) associated Protestantism with the sort of “shop around or found a new denomination” mentality implicit in Tobin’s casually dismissive remark . In contrast, I have always felt my identity as a Catholic to be far too organic and deeply rooted to be jettisoned because of my disagreements with the hieararchy, however important the issues. (To be clear, I’m not saying that all Protestants approach things this way. Indeed, I suspect that many Protestants have an equally deep connection to their particular denomination, or at least, to the idea of being Protestant.) Being Catholic is not just about the way I relate to a laundry-list of authoritative teachings or to the bishops or to my parish priest (who I really love). It’s also about how I relate to my mom and dad, my two sons, and (before they died) my grandparents; even how I relate to my identity as a Cuban-American. This conflict between Catholic officialdom and Catholic identity is probably as old as the Church itself. It’s certainly endemic within Latin American Catholicism — I think here of Jose Marti urging campesinos to baptize their own children rather than pay a priest to do it for them, not to mention all the travails of the Theology of Liberation. It’s all very messy — like a big, extended family with lots of crazy uncles and embarrassing second-cousins. And, in my mind, this messiness is very distinctively Catholic. I’m not trying to make any deep theological point with this — I just want to challenge the wisdom of bishops being so quick to urge people to leave for greener pastures and expressing such cavalier attitudes about who counts as Catholic, and why.
UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan comments on the Patrick Kennedy situation. Here’s a taste:
I am struck by the emphases of the American hierarchy these past few months. On health insurance, there is far more public emphasis on preventing anyone who wants to get an insurance policy from the new government-run exchanges from getting an abortion (even if she pays for it herself) than on the core principle of health care as a human right (in Catholic doctrine).
I can see that both principles are valid, but the intensity of the campaign against one compared with the lackadaisical interest in the other seems unbalanced to me. The hierarchy’s growing fusion with fundamentalist Republican politics is becoming harder and harder to ignore. They can turn a blind eye to state-sanctioned torture, and to the suffering of those without healthcare, but when it comes to ensuring that gay couples are kept stigmatized or that non-Catholic women can’t have access to abortion in a secular society, they come alive. There are times when it appears the only real issue for the Catholic church is abortion.