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A Kennedy battles a bishop: church, state and abortion

November 23, 2009 |  9:34 am

Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy with his father Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy

Rhode Island Democrat Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, has, like his father, long been a public supporter of abortion rights.

Because of his stance on abortion, Bishop Thomas Tobin, the archbishop of the Providence diocese, three years ago banned Kennedy from receiving Holy Communion but promised to keep the decision confidential.

Now, the 42-year-old Kennedy is going public. And the bishop is fighting back.

On Friday, Kennedy told the Providence Journal that Bishop told him he was "not a good practicing Catholic because of the positions that I’ve taken as a public official,” particularly on abortion.

Bishop Tobin replied that even though “I have no desire to continue the discussion of Congressman Kennedy’s spiritual life in public," he will defend the church or his pastoral ministry from "inaccurate statements." The truth, said the bishop, is that he never discussed their conversation with anyone else, and that he prays that Kennedy will “enter into a sincere process of discernment, conversion and repentance,”

Kennedy first attacked the church in October during the House debate on abortion protections in the healthcare bill. At the time, the Rhode Island congressman told Catholic News Service, “I thought they were pro-life. If the Church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health-care reform because it’s going to provide health care that (is) going to keep people alive."

Despite the war of words in the public arena, the church has been winning in the halls of Congress. A few weeks ago, lobbying by Catholics helped preserve limits on government funding for abortions in the healthcare bill, protections they are again seeking in the Senate.

As Politico's Jeanne Cummings reported this morning, the U.S. Conference of Bishops hit on a winning lobbying strategy: deploy paid staff to Capitol Hill, tap influential bishops to lobby key congressional leaders and distribute bulletin inserts to 19,000 parishes with easy instructions — and sample wording — for sending a message to local representatives.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Associated Press

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