By Kathleen Gilbert

WASHINGTON, D.C., November 24, 2009 ( – In a heated exchange Monday night, MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews accused Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island of hijacking public policy debate by telling a pro-abortion Catholic politician not to receive Communion.  The president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, has shot back against Matthews' treatment of the Church prelate in that interview, which he called “quite insulting.”

Bishop Tobin appeared on the program to discuss his exchange with U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), who recently accused the Catholic Church of fanning the “flames of dissent and discord” by opposing the pro-abortion House health care bill.  Tobin had asked the Catholic Kennedy in 2007 to refrain from receiving Communion because of his pro-abortion record.

Matthews, who is a Catholic, questioned Tobin's objection to Kennedy's voting record as a violation of the separation of Church and state.  Tobin responded that his actions as a Church authority were not intended to craft public policy, but to admonish Catholic politicians to be faithful to the teachings of the Church.

“Keep in mind what we believe about abortion. Every time an abortion takes place, a baby dies,” said Tobin.  “I don't know how people of good conscience, especially people with a Catholic background, could take that position in good conscience.”

Matthews spent much of the interview demanding details from Bishop Tobin on what kind of penalty should be imposed if abortion were no longer legal.  Tobin repeatedly demurred, saying he was not qualified to answer specific aspects of theoretical legislation.

“Maybe that's instructive to you, sir, your Excellency … you say you don't know how to [write the law]; well, you ought to try before you tell [Kennedy] what he's doing wrong,' Matthews shot back. 

“I would contest that your problem is you haven't gotten people to obey your moral code through teaching, and you've resorted now to use the law to do your enforcement for you.” 

Tobin answered by saying it is “not at all unusual to have the moral law reflected in the law of the land.”  “How that is played out, that's not the job of the Church.  … My job is to try to promote the truth of the moral law, and to encourage members of my Church, who freely choose to be Catholic, to follow the dictates of their faith,” said Tobin.

In concluding the interview, Matthews told the bishop that, by “telling public officials how to set public policy, you're stepping beyond moral teaching, and you're basically assuming an authority which I don't think is yours.” 

“Obviously we will disagree on that point, thank you,” Tobin replied.

Matthews continued: “I do believe that Jesus had it right when he said, 'Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's,' and as you admitted on four or five occasions, you don't know how to write law, and writing law is very tricky in a secular society in which you and I live, even with our moral conduct, I hope, acceptable to God.”

“I will reflect on that, if you reflect on the teachings of the Church,” Tobin countered.

Catholic League president Bill Donohue said that he was “deluged” with feedback from viewers after the interview. Donohue said that after he watched the first part of the interview, “I wondered what all the fuss was all about: Chris was just being his usual aggressive self.” But, he says, as the interview continued, “it didn't take long before Matthews literally spun out of control.”

“Matthews proceeded with an extended and quite insulting lecture. He had absolutely no interest in a discussion on the question of the morality and legality of abortion – all he wanted to do was to make the bishop sit there and listen to his rant,” he continued.

“No non-Catholic would ever treat a bishop this way. But too many liberal Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, think they are exempt from the same standards of civility that apply to others. They are flatly wrong.”

To contact Hardball executive producer John Reiss: [email protected]

See related coverage:

Bishop Tobin Asked Rep. Kennedy Not to Receive Communion