The word “agony” describes the rosary’s first Sorrowful Mystery. It also describes the pain felt in the clash of opinions between Catholic laypeople and some clergy. Such agonizing moments seem to be increasing, especially between Catholic politicians and bishops.
Consider two of the most high-profile clashes: U.S. Sen. Robert Casey, Jr. of Pennsylvania and the erstwhile Bishop of Scranton, Joseph Martino; and U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island and Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence.
Both public officials come from prominent political and Catholic families. The Caseys have been in the vanguard of the pro-life Democrats who have pulled the party back from the liberal precipice of a Margaret Sanger approach to birth control, sterilization and abortion. There would have been no Clinton abortion policy of “legal, safe and rare” without the elder Casey, and the younger Casey has moved the Obama policy to the center in promoting adoption and limiting unwanted pregnancies. In the case of the Kennedy clan, there would have been no health-care reform — long supported by Catholic bishops — without the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s advocacy.
So if the bishops as a group support limitations on abortion and sweeping health-care reform, why would they threaten two Catholic politicians who have been instrumental in securing those goals? Bad theology from two bishops may be the cause. After all, both elected officials have acted within the norms of Gaudium et Spes (#43) which serves as part of the written constitution of the Church:
“Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their [the bishop’s] mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role.”
Moreover, the same document (#76) reminds bishops that the theological and the political “are autonomous and independent from each other.” These documents do not argue for two theological positions, but permit different political options, giving preference to Catholic officials to know best how to produce legislation.
Nonetheless, Scranton’s bishop threatened to withhold communion from Senator Casey about a procedural vote (non-legislative!) to approve Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Bishop Tobin said he was not sure if Kennedy fulfilled “the basic requirements of being a Catholic,” based on the Representative’s statement that he could “disagree with the hierarchy on some [political] issues.”
Bishop Martino equated a vote for confirmation with a specific sinful act, overreaching his authority in Canon Law (See Canon 915). Bishop Tobin accused Kennedy of “a deliberate and obstinate act of the will” in voting to allow abortion – despite the fact that the bishop himself supports the Hyde Amendment that departs from Catholic teaching by allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest. If the Catholic bishops compromise doctrine for a larger common good, why can’t laypersons? Looking at Tobin’s interview with Chris Matthews, it appears that Bishop Tobin has not yet thought carefully about this issue.
Even if a Catholic layperson recognizes that sometimes the hierarchy adopts a double standard that is rife with political contradictions, challenging the clergy for overreaching is next to impossible. Going against your bishop – even when you have Church teaching on your side – is agonizing for believers. Sadly, being a faithful Catholic sometimes requires it.