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The Deacon's Bench

John Allen has a few interesting thoughts about the Patrick Kennedy-Bishop Thomas Tobin communion clash:

I have no insider scoop to offer, but I can summarize here what I’ve been saying on-air: the most interesting question about the story isn’t so much “why,” but “why now”?

That is, there’s no mystery about why Tobin took this step. It’s the same logic that has led a handful of other bishops to issue similar edicts to other pro-choice Catholic politicians: communion implies unity with the church, and if you can’t accept a core principle of Catholic morality such as the right to life, then taking communion is a sham. One can, of course, debate the theology of that conclusion, or the pastoral wisdom of policing it. The majority of American bishops have not gone this far, mostly because they don’t want to turn the Eucharist into a political weapon. But in any event, the terms of debate are reasonably clear, and have been for a long time.

The meaningful question thus becomes, why is a step taken almost three years ago just coming to light now? The answer would appear to have everything to do with the current national debate over health care reform, a debate in which so far the bishops have been fairly important players.

The revelation came from Kennedy, not from Tobin, in an interview with a Providence newspaper. I don’t know why Kennedy made the disclosure, but it could be as simple as that he was asked. I’ve seen it happen with public figures before: they don’t plan to make a statement about something, but if the question comes up, they feel obligated to answer it. (The pope’s comments on condoms en route to Africa are a classic case in point.)

On the other hand, Kennedy has a deep reservoir of political savvy swimming in his gene pool, and it’s impossible not to notice that there are at least two clear political objectives to be served by revealing Tobin’s disciplinary act now:

• It’s reminder that the bishops don’t speak for a unified Catholic bloc when it comes to abortion policy. The political translation is that a legislator doesn’t have to worry about losing all 67 million Catholic votes in America if they don’t back the bishops’ line.

• It creates a PR headache for the bishops, because it shifts the terms of debate from the merits of the pro-life argument to the bishops’ tactics in suppressing dissent. In a culture that prizes tolerance, anything that makes an institution look intolerant usually hurts its image, and therefore its political effectiveness.

Check out the link for much more.

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