By James Tillman

WASHINGTON, DC, November 23, 2009 ( – U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) said in an interview Sunday that Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has instructed him to refrain from Communion because of his pro-abortion political position.  In response to Kennedy's statement, Bishop Tobin has clarified that his request was issued in 2007 and was not the result of the recent highly public exchange between Kennedy and himself.

“The bishop instructed me not to take Communion and said that he has instructed the diocesan priests not to give me Communion,” Kennedy told the Providence Journal.

The admission comes after a verbal fight between Kennedy and Bishop Tobin, sparked by Kennedy's saying that the Church was fanning the “flames of dissent and discord” by opposing the health care bill then in the House, which would have brought about federally-funded abortions. Kennedy also questioned whether or not the bishops were really “pro-life” based upon their opposition to the health bill.

Bishop Tobin responded by calling Kennedy a “disappointment to the Catholic Church and the citizens of Rhode Island.” 

The most recent exchange between the two is the first since Kennedy said that he wanted to cease discussing his faith in public, after a projected meeting between Kennedy and Tobin fell through about two weeks ago.

In a response to Kennedy's latest statement, Bishop Tobin said he was “disappointed and really surprised that Congressman Patrick Kennedy has chosen to re-open the public discussion about his practice of the faith and his reception of Holy Communion.”

He continued by pointing out that he had in fact asked Kennedy to refrain from Communion approximately three years ago, in light of Kennedy's consistent opposition to Church teaching. “On February 21, 2007, I wrote to Congressman Kennedy stating: 'In light of the Church's clear teaching, and your consistent actions, therefore, I believe it is inappropriate for you to be receiving Holy Communion and I now ask respectfully that you refrain from doing so,'” said Tobin.

Kennedy had declined to say when or how Bishop Tobin had told him not to receive Communion.  He has also said that he has since received Communion.

Bishop Tobin explains in his response that his request came in the light of a USCCB document that says that if “a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definite teachings on moral issues, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.”

Furthermore, Bishop Tobin has disputed Kennedy's statement that he told diocesan priests not to give communion to Kennedy.  “If I had told 300 priests of the diocese in any format not to give Communion to Kennedy or anybody else, you think that would have remained confidential?” Bishop Tobin asked.

Nevertheless, in another interview Bishop Tobin said that he might have “a little conversation” with any priest who gave Kennedy the Sacrament.

Bishop Tobin also said that he has “no desire to continue the discussion of Congressman Kennedy's spiritual life in public.”

The bishop has declined to say whether he has made similar requests regarding the reception of Communion to Sen. Jack Reed, a Catholic Democrat from Rhode Island who supports abortion, or to Rhode Island Rep. James R. Langevin, who has supported embryonic stem cell research.  Sen. Reed has said that any discussions between him and the bishop will remain private.

Tobin wrote that he had intended to keep his correspondence with Rep. Kennedy similarly private. “It was never intended for the public domain,” he said.

“At the same time,” his letter states, “I will absolutely respond publicly and strongly whenever he attacks the Catholic Church, misrepresents the teachings of the Church, or issues inaccurate statements about my pastoral ministry.”

Tobin was asked by the Providence Journal whether his firm public stand was designed to advance his career within the Church.

“No,” he said. “Bishops who tend to be really outspoken don't tend to get promoted.

“It's simply one bishop – me – doing my job as best I can.”

See related coverage:

Bishop Tobin's Public Letter to Rep. Kennedy 

Catholic Bishop Publishes Extraordinary Letter Re: “Obstinate” Kennedy's Abortion Support 

Rep. Kennedy Questions Whether Bishops “Pro-Life” over Opposition to Healthcare: Local Bishop Demands Apology