Friday, November 27, 2009

Congressman Kennedy and Bishop Tobin

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 --and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:19-20

The dispute between Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin and Congressman Patrick Kennedy has gone national. And viral. Don’t you love (or hate) that phrase?

On the day after Thanksgiving, let’s begin with the charge (I did not hear it from the Bishop himself, but it’s in the air) that Mr. Kennedy is a “Cafeteria Catholic.” He helps himself to the church teachings with which he agrees, and ignores the rest. The Bishop said that the Congressman cannot call himself a real Catholic unless he supports the Church’s teachings on abortion.

And that’s where Mr. Kennedy’s original point was lost.

The Congressman criticized the Catholic Church for opposing the health care reform bill. He was disappointed that in their single-minded opposition to abortion, they had focused on some very minor issues within the bill and dismissed the fact that the bill is overwhelmingly in line with Catholic Social teaching.

If we are honest, we recognize that there are a lot of Cafeteria Catholics (and Cafeteria Christians) out there. And abortion is not the only issue where people pick and choose. There are many conservative Catholics who reject the Catholic teachings on torture, war, social justice, capital punishment, and other issues.

Everyone picks and chooses his or her way through Christian (not just Roman Catholic) Social Teachings. And the field of Christian Social Ethics is dedicated to sifting through the biblical witness and the historical teachings of the Christian Church (again, not just RC) to focus on issues that matter most and help us live as faithful disciples. Yesterday’s absolute teachings become tomorrow’s cafeteria. The menu must be re-written for each new generation. The goal for faithful Christians is not to avoid decision making, but to make wise and faithful decisions. We can’t just look for the ideas and positions that appeal to our personal preferences. We need to look at the larger issues. We need to return over and over to Jesus’ teachings. We need to look hard at what we have learned in the past and ask how it applies to the future.

The implicit and very important question Mr. Kennedy put to the leaders of his church was:

Does the abortion issue always trump everything else? Is that the only absolute issue?

It is a valid question within the context of the Roman Catholic Church, and it would have been interesting to hear a real response from the Bishop.

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