Wafer or Political Weapon?

by Jesse Galef

When people simultaneously try to serve their country and serve God’s will, conflicts will arise.  Some politicians are worse than others at separating their faith from their policies *cough DeMint cough* but it’s pretty consistent for us to see them putting their personal convictions over sound, secular policy.

But Representative Patrick Kennedy is under pressure for for NOT allowing the Catholic Church to dictate his stances.  In another highly publicized confrontation between the church and pro-choice Democrats, he has been barred from taking communion:

“The bishop instructed me not to take Communion and said that he has instructed the diocesan priests not to give me Communion,” Kennedy said in a telephone interview.

Kennedy said the bishop had explained the penalty by telling him “that I am not a good practicing Catholic because of the positions that I’ve taken as a public official,” particularly on abortion. He declined to say when or how Bishop Tobin told him not to take the sacrament. And he declined to say whether he has obeyed the bishop’s injunction.

The article notes that Rep. Obey went through a similar ordeal in 2003, and that Sen. Kerry was threatened during his 2004 presidential run.

Separating church and state is a tricky task.  I can definitely understand how this is difficult from the Church’s point of view – they believe abortion to be a great moral evil and, in their religious capacity, want to admonish individuals who support it.  But they need to recognize the distinction between Representative Kennedy, elected official of Rhode Island, and Patrick Kennedy, the man who goes to their church.  It is utterly inappropriate to use communion as a weapon against Patrick Kennedy for something that Representative Kennedy does.

If Representative Kennedy believes that protecting women’s right to choose is a good thing for our country here in this world and in this life, his duty is to support it.  But he’s threatened with punishment in the afterlife for doing his job.  For now, he’s carrying out his responsibilities – good for him.  Those whose faith would prohibit them from supporting our secular government should not run for office.

I find myself thinking about JFK’s famous speech on religion in 1960:

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

So say we all.

About Dr. Denise Cooper-Clarke

I am a graduate of medicine and theology with a Ph.D in medical ethics. I tutor in medical ethics at the University of Melbourne, am an (occasional) adjunct Lecturer in Ethics at Ridley Melbourne, and a voluntary researcher with Ethos. I am also a Fellow of ISCAST and a past chair of the Melbourne Chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality. I have special interests in professional ethics, sexual ethics and the ethics of virtue.

  • Revyloution

    Ive always been tempted to believe the conservative conspiracy loons on this one. The Kennedy’s are all secret atheists that use the church to score political points.

    They might believe in some sort of higher power, or even that Jesus was a divine teacher, but their actions just don’t look like those of a true believing Catholic.

    I personally welcome these kinds of faux pas from the theists. Nothing like a good schism to send a decent chunk of their flock to the ranks of the non-believers.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    If the Catholic Church wants to play political games, they should lose their tax exemption.

  • http://primesequence.blogspot.com/ PrimeNumbers

    Are paedophile priests allowed to receive communion?

  • 3D

    JFK said:

    “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

    The ironic thing about this speech, from a 2009 POV, is that Kennedy was making this speech to DISTANCE himself from his own religion, because the old-time-religion W.A.S.P. voters were afraid that a Catholic president was going to take direct orders over a hotline from the Pope.

    Now we have come full circle, with politicians bending over backwards to convince crazy people that they are also crazy, in order to get elected.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Jesse Galef

    @3D: Exactly right – people kept comparing Romney’s speech to JFK’s speech on religion as if they were the same, but they’re really complete opposites. Romney was arguing that religion was necessary and he had it, JFK was arguing that religion was bad in government and he wouldn’t let it affect him.

    How far we have fallen since 1960.

  • ImmortalityLTD

    To paraphrase PZ Myers: It’s just a frackin’ cracker!

  • http://idahoev.com IdahoEv

    I can definitely understand how this is difficult from the Church’s point of view – they believe abortion to be a great moral evil and, in their religious capacity, want to admonish individuals who support it.

    I refuse to give them even that much benefit of the doubt on this one. The reason?

    They have never used this tactic against pro-life Republicans. The Catholic church will deny a sacrament to Kerry and Kennedy on the (supposed) basis of their beliefs on abortion … but Schwarzenegger and Giuliani — pro-choice Catholic politicians both — get a pass.

  • Eddie

    Link

    @IdahoEv–Guiliani has felt the Catholic heat as well.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Jesse Galef

    @IdahoEv –

    Each bishop has leeway to make the decision himself, and it’s actually a contentious topic. Also from the article:

    “We don’t comment on the individual actions of bishops because they are authoritative in their own dioceses,” said Deirdre McQuade, of the bishops conference, when asked about the exchanges between Kennedy and Bishop Tobin.


    In 2004, a large majority of bishops “tried to persuade the minority not to do this — using Communion as a weapon,” Father Reese said, but the conference could not come to a consensus view on the issue.

  • Revyloution

    Jessie, I wouldnt exactly say we’ve fallen since 1960.

    In 1960 we elected the guy who said faith should be secondary to the office. We elected someone who came from a minority (Irish Catholic). We elected someone with a progressive agenda.

    In 2008, we did the same thing.

    The closeness of the elections, and the fevered debates then and now tell me that were moving forward. Only at a snails pace.

  • penn

    The increasing power of fundamentalists in the Catholic Church make me glad that I got out when I did. Why is it that no politician has been threatened over supporting the death penalty, which Catholic teaching also opposes. Why were no politicians denied communion for supporting the War in Iraq which the Vatican opposed?

    I really don’t understand how the Catholic hierarchy can honestly believe that becoming more like Evangelicals is their best option for the future.

  • bill

    i’m no stranger to this issue. my dad’s a pretty conservative guy and also very catholic, and is himself a pro-lifer. around my middle school years, he was president of the right to life group in our area, until one time when he was interviewed for a newspaper about this exact same issue: should pro-choice politicians be allowed to receive communion? he said yes on the basis that it was not up to other people to judge them, and that the church should be open to these politicians, and maybe they would eventually take the church’s teaching and fight against abortion. my dad was subsequently ousted and any time he and/or my mom (also a pro-lifer) would go to the right to life group’s meetings, they would be treated very unkindly and made to feel unwelcome. while my parents both remained conservative and pro-choice, the fact that one of them said that they were okay with pro-choice politicians receiving communion resulted in ostracism from a group they really cared about and had worked hard for in the past. all of this was extremely petty and juvenile, and it turned me off from catholics long before i even considered atheism, or even being non-catholic for that matter.

  • http://erkkila.org epe

    I’m not sure how I feel about this. I mean, sure, on the one hand, churches should not be politicking. On the other, churches need to have the freedom to decide who they want to allow into their club. Best solution of all would be if these politicians would make their choice of church (if they must have one at all) to fit their ideals, rather than the other way around. The fewer politicians a church has to push around like pawns, the better for all of us.

  • Miko

    I’ll go one step further than “they need to recognize the distinction between Representative Kennedy … and Patrick Kennedy” and say instead that they need to recognize the distinction between someone who has an abortion herself (or the spouse thereof) and someone who as an elected official doesn’t do anything to stop strangers (that the official has never actually met) from having abortions.

    It’s perfectly logically consistent to be solidly against abortion, to not get an abortion yourself (or to council your wife not to get one), and to simultaneously think that there should be no laws preventing abortion. In attempting to deny this truth, the priest is painting with the broadest monochromatic brush imaginable. Religion’s stark black/white divisions stunt moral development.

  • http://cycleninja.blogspot.com Paul Lundgren

    Explain to me again why the Catholic Church is still tax-exempt?

    [/snark]

  • Ron in Houston

    The timing is odd on this one. Supposedly the letter denying Kennedy communion is 2 years old. For some reason, Kennedy is revealing this now.

    The interesting political drama is the question “why?” Apparently Kennedy just now has decided to fight. I wonder if it had anything to do with Ted passing.

  • Edmond

    Don’t eat it! It’s PEOPLE!!!

  • False Prophet

    @IdahoEv,

    More to the point, Catholic doctrine (from the mouths of the last two Popes, no less!) also opposes the death penalty, the war in Iraq, and rampant global capitalism.

    However, you never hear the U.S. Catholic bishops attack politicians for holding those positions. Only the doctrines dealing with the reproductive organs. You can slaughter people by the thousands, as long as they’ve passed through the birth canal, and the U.S. bishops are fine with it.

  • Anonymouse

    I posted this on another blog, same topic.
    Same problem in the Philippines, although this priest takes a more liberal view.

    http://opinion.inquirer.net/inquireropinion/columns/view/20091122-237831/When-churchmen-campaign

  • http://dannyman.toldme.com/ Daniel Howard

    So . . . at some point will the Catholics need to swipe your ID to see if you are on the approved list? It just seems weird that as an anonymous Atheist I can just wander into any Catholic church and receive communion, no questions asked, but a specific Catholic parishioner would be denied.

    How does it work now: do they fax out a bulletin with a mug shot for the priests to intentionally exclude?

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com Anna

    It is utterly inappropriate to use communion as a weapon against Patrick Kennedy for something that Representative Kennedy does.

    I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I’m actually going to side with the Catholic church on this issue.

    They’re a private organization and can make up their own rules. If people don’t agree with the rules, they’re free to leave. In fact, I wish they would leave. If all the moderate and progressive Catholics stopped attending mass, decided to pull their kids out of parochial school, and refused to donate money, then maybe the Catholic church wouldn’t have so much power. If all those who support gay rights, abortion rights, women clergy, and birth control told the church to go fly a kite, perhaps the hierarchy would be forced to change. If not, at the very least, they wouldn’t have the resources or the clout to interfere so much with American politics.

  • Kris

    Wow! Is this serious?

    Let’s be honest everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are, your religious viewpoints (religion is a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith) drive every decision you make in life. This goes for Atheism, Theism, or Pantheism.

    For instance, if someone believes that life is a random occurrence with no ultimate cause or purpose, then abortion and other sensitive subjects can be supported because no inherent accountability (other than social acceptance) exists for one’s actions.

    But if someone believes that there is an ultimate cause (whether God, or any other spiritual being) to the universe that gives life an overarching purpose, then life has inherent value. If someone believes this to be true, then to terminate life would be considered murder. I know that Theists and Pantheists disagree on this and unfortunately some people have not followed their worldview to its logical conclusion. You can see how someone’s worldview drives every political decision.

    It is absurd for any politician to claim that their religious viewpoints do not affect their politics. Atheism is a religious viewpoint and it does affect Atheists’ politics. Unfortunately we live in a functionally atheistic society where the majority of the people are Theistic or Pantheistic. Politicians are told they have to not allow their religious viewpoints to affect their judgments. That is impossible for anyone!

    As a country we fall into this laughable irony by ignoring the facts. It’s funny, yet scary at the same time. Religious neutrality is a hoax. It is not dangerous to acknowledge your religious viewpoints and live likewise.

    We can disagree as friendly Americans and be kind to one another, but unfortunately most people would rather lie to themselves and everyone else.

  • Anony-mous

    “It is utterly inappropriate to use communion as a weapon against Patrick Kennedy for something that Representative Kennedy does.”–Jesse Galef

    That’s your bizarre opinion.

    Since Communion has no value for you as an atheist, then why are you getting your panties in a bunch? Also, who is forcing Kennedy to be Catholic? Since you’re an atheist, shouldn’t you be pleased if he and other pro-choice politicians were to leave the Church?

    The Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause protects Tobin’s action. There are no IRS guidelines that regulate the dispensation of religious sacraments.

    If American Atheists (which has the same 501 c 3 nonprofit status as any church, synagogue, mosque, or Scientology center) wanted to punish a member who was also an elected or public official because he voted against their views, it would be within it’s right to do so.


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