Columns

Will Wray ’10: Tobin plays hardball

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rhode Island’s own Bishop Thomas Tobin went head-to-head with Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball last Wednesday. While it is uncertain who won the confrontation, it is quite clear that Matthews was wrong. Whatever Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy is, he is not a good Catholic. Bishop Tobin is free to tell him as much without exposing himself to accusations of “transgressing into the law.”

The casus belli was Patrick Kennedy’s public announcement that he was asked to refrain from taking communion by Bishop Tobin in February 2007. The Bishop told Rep. Kennedy that certain positions he took as a legislator disqualified him from participating in the Catholic ritual. Kennedy’s announcement has been widely publicized, not least because the positions in question concerned abortion.

Abortion legislation was certainly the cornerstone of Matthews’ argument. In a flurry of questions that put the Bishop at a marked disadvantage, Matthews pointed out that any law criminalizing abortion would be impractical. The Bishop repeatedly insisted that his job was not to craft legislation, but to ensure that “…Catholics who are in political office are faithful…to the dictates of their conscience.”

Much of the criticism directed towards Matthews alleges that he was blustery and discourteous. This point is indisputable. Matthews frequently interrupted the Bishop, forced him to answer leading questions (questions which are by their very nature slanted or testimonial, e.g. “Have you stopped beating your wife?”), and used the ecclesiastical title ‘Your Excellency’ in a manner that suggested Bishop Tobin was anything but. Matthews’ stridency smacked of a guilty Roman Catholic conscience desperate for vindication. Whether his confrontational style was effective or unappealing is a question which only Hardball’s ratings will satisfy.

What is certain is that Matthews was wrong, deeply wrong. Matthews failed to see the difference between actively trying to impose a particular religion’s moral dictates as law on one hand, and simply holding public office while remaining true to one’s moral code. Bishop Tobin never advocated the former, and Kennedy failed in the latter.

Even if the wisest public policy is to keep abortion legal, Kennedy identifying himself as a good Catholic while supporting pro-choice legislation is akin to an individual identifying himself as a hard-line ethical vegetarian while working at a factory farm. While many ethical vegetarians acknowledge that animal protein is necessary for the developing world, or that it would be oppressive to make eating meat illegal, active affirmation of mass animal slaughter contradicts the principles of ethical vegetarianism.

As Bishop Tobin pointed out, it is not his job to write the laws. It is not even his job to be “politically active.” The Bishop privately counsels individuals — individuals who have freely approached the Church — as to how their actions conform with Catholic norms.

Bishop Tobin’s choice not to be a legislator was in part based upon his personal decision not to pick a profession where the necessities of the job contradicted his faith. If Kennedy felt strongly about his Catholic beliefs, he would have done the same.

Kennedy would like this incident to establish him as a martyr to the cause of keeping church and state separate. However he has no compunctions about blurring the line when it seems politically advantageous. In an October 22 interview, Kennedy accused the Catholic church of fanning “the flames of dissent and discord [because]…if the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health care reform because it’s going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive.”

This statement is flawed in almost too many ways to count. It assumes that government-initiated healthcare reform will help, not hurt, it exhibits some regrettable grammar and it blatantly overlooks the fact that the church opposed a specific bill because it provided state-subsidized abortions.

Most importantly, it demonstrates that Patrick Kennedy, who came to Brown to declare that we need the public option because “all of us are children of God,” is inconsistent in his reasoning. If religious mores have no place in the public sphere, then Kennedy should delineate precisely why he supports legislation in a secular fashion.

Without vague references to natural law or appeals to an undefined, universalist God, what doctrine guides Kennedy when he determines which goods or services should be provided to our citizens and how these should be prioritized? Is he a utilitarian, because he cares about the aggregate health and happiness of Americans? Is he a national socialist, because he directs the wealth generated by American citizens to provide for American well-being? Is he a technocrat, because he supports having government-appointed “experts” regulate how a given industry will be operated?

There is, of course, an ideology which encompasses all of the above and explains Kennedy’s stances. He is a populist: he allocates taxpayers’ money wherever it will get him elected.

Will Wray ’10 is late for a vote.