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Bishop Tobin on "Separation of Church and State"

WITHOUT A DOUBT
Has Our State Lost Its Soul?
BY BISHOP THOMAS J. TOBIN
1/6/11
So, our new Governor, Lincoln Chafee, decided to break with recent history and begin his inauguration day without participating in a public prayer service. This has caused some discussion, even consternation, around the state.
Now personally, I’m neither surprised by nor disappointed by the Governor’s decision. After all, it was his inauguration, and he had every right to design a program with which he was comfortable. Whether to pray publicly with other leaders and citizens of the state on his big day was completely his prerogative.
I’m more concerned by the reason for the no-prayer decision given by his spokesman who said that the Governor’s “point of view is that his inaugural day needs to respect the separation of church and state. Separation of church and state is an important constitutional principle.”
The explanation is disappointing and confusing; it raises some rather significant questions.
First, if it’s imperative to maintain the alleged “separation of church and state” on inauguration day, why were prayers offered at the inauguration ceremony itself? And why did the Governor invite religious leaders to have a prominent presence at the event?
And is the appeal to the “separation of church and state” mentioned in this case an appropriate application of the principle?
By now you should be aware that the exact phrase “separation of church and state” isn’t found anywhere in our nation’s Constitution but rather was a principle that evolved later on. The Constitution simply says that the Congress cannot legislate the establishment of religion nor prohibit the exercise of religion. In other words, the “separation of church and state” is meant to protect religion from the interference of the state. It was never intended to remove every spiritual aspiration, prayerful utterance, or reference to God from public life.
Nor should the so-called “separation of church and state” be used as a weapon to silence the faith community, or restrict its robust participation in the debate of important public issues. I’ve found that whenever I’ve spoken out on public issues – e.g., abortion, gay marriage or immigration – some irritated souls, arguing the “separation of church and state” will insist that I’m out of line. In fact, religious leaders have every right, indeed the duty, to speak out on public issues. If we fail to do so, we’re neglecting our role as teachers, preachers and prophets. And if we don’t bring the spiritual dimension, the moral dimension to the discussion of these issues, who will?
The usefulness of religion and its importance in public life have been affirmed from the beginning. James Madison, recognized as the principal author of the Constitution, wrote, “Religion is the basis and foundation of government.” And George Washington, in his farewell address said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
The point is this: religion has an important, indeed a unique contribution to make to the governance of our society. Can we, once and for all then, put to rest the bogus interpretations of the “separation of church and state” so often cited these days?
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, in his outstanding book, “Render Unto Caesar,” makes this observation: “Americans have always believed in nonsectarian public institutions. But the founders never intended a nation that privatizes religion and excludes it from involvement in public affairs. Nor did they create any such nation. The secularism proposed today for our public life is not religion-neutral. It is antireligious.” (p. 29)
The Archbishop goes on: “A truly secularized United States would be a country without a soul; a nation with a hole in its heart . . . Secularism as a cult – the kind of rigid separationism where the state treats religion as a scary and unstable guest – hollows out the core of what it means to be human.” (p. 30)
A “country without a soul.” A “nation with a hole in its heart.” I wonder – is that the kind of nation we long for? Is that the kind of state we want Rhode Island to become?
Pope John Paul hit the nail on the head when he wrote about the “practical and existential atheism” of our age. He describes the individual who is “all bound up in himself.” For such an individual, “there is no longer the need to fight against God; he feels that he is simply able to do without him.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, #7)
The Pope’s insight leads me to wonder: Is our nation, and our state, in frequently appealing to “separation of church and state,” promoting an atheistic worldview? Are we creating a secular wasteland, bereft of any spiritual or religious influence? And is that how we want to live?
We have a ton of problems in our state – a depressed economy, a fragile social service network, a distressed public education system, the demise of the family, a wave of urban crime and domestic violence, and what promises to be an intense and divisive debate created by the ill-advised desire to redefine marriage. To deal successfully with these problems our leaders will need wisdom and courage. They will need a great deal of human cooperation, but also a generous measure of God’s grace. They shouldn’t be afraid to fall on their knees and ask for God’s help. A little spiritual humility would go a long way in restoring the confidence and the moral quality of our community.

Bishop Tobin’s Pastoral Response to Catholic RI Gubernatorial Candidates

The Bishop of Providence, Thomas Tobin, has not shied away from defending Catholic beliefs in calling out Catholic politicians or weighing in on controversial issues such as immigration and “homosexual marriage”.  His strong response to Congressman Kennedy’s misguided attack on the Church’s moral authority landed him in the national spotlight, making news headlines and television appearances.  He has frequently stated that professing to be Catholic means something and requires something from those who call themselves Catholic.

On March 4th supporters of same-sex marriage held a rally at the Rhode Island statehouse.  Present on the podium were four of the five current candidates for governor, two of whom profess to be Catholic (and pro-choice as well).  First to take the mic was State Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio who said,  “As governor I will sign the marriage-equality bill. I also will work with the legislature to see that it gets through the legislature.”  Next, Patrick Lynch, RI Attorney General, said he “would quickly put pen to paper” and sign a marriage-equality bill, and would veto a bill that defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

Bishop Tobin responded in a statement, “It is extremely disappointing to see Catholic politicians abandon their faith for the sake of political expediency.  I would hope that as candidates and office holders, they would be able to support traditional, moral values such as the recognition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman. I am hopeful that they will reconsider their position.”

The Rhode Island Catholic has links to copies of the letters Bishop Tobin sent to both Catholic candidates.  The text is below [my emphasis]:

I am writing to express my profound disappointment that you participated in the recent rally at the State House and there publicly pledged to sign a bill allowing “homosexual marriage” in the State of Rhode Island should you be elected Governor.

From a practical point of view, your pledge to sign such legislation -without even knowing any of the details of the eventual legislation -is very puzzling. You’ve now put yourself in a box – pledged to sign legislation, even if the legislation that eventually emerges is seriously flawed or unacceptable for practical reasons. I wonder if you would make a similar pledge for any other piece of hypothetical legislation.

The greater concern for me, of course, is that your willingness to support -even promote- “homosexual marriage” is contrary to the obligations of the Catholic Faith you profess. The teachings of the Church on this matter have been clear and consistent.

While the Church strongly affirms and defends the human dignity and human rights of homosexual persons as beloved children of God and our brothers and sisters, the Church also teaches that homosexual activity is unnatural and immoral, a sin against human dignity and a grave offense to Almighty God. This teaching is based on the natural moral law, the Holy Scriptures and the constant tradition of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit.

The concept of so-called “gay marriage” is offensive because it amounts to public acceptance of and endorsement of immoral homosexual activity and is a blatant attempt to redefine the sacred institution of marriage as a union of one man and one woman. This traditional definition of marriage is not of human origin. It was designed by God and has been unquestioned in every culture and society from the very beginning of the human family.

I need to remind you that Catholic political leaders are not exempt from the obligations of their faith, any more than members of any other profession are exempt from their faith. Your Catholic Faith is not a private matter -to be authentic it must inform every aspect of your personal and public life. You cannot profess to be a Catholic on Sunday and then set out to promote immoral activities the rest of the week. To consider your faith a private matter without any impact on your professional life is clearly inconsistent with the teachings of Christ who taught His disciples to be “the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” (Mt. 5: 13-14)

As your bishop I am concerned primarily for your spiritual well-being and for that reason I am obliged to remind you that your public support of “homosexual marriage” creates a grave spiritual danger for you. Someday you will stand face-to-face before the judgment seat of God and have to explain why you publicly promoted immoral sexual activity, scandalized the community and contributed to the erosion of Holy Matrimony and family life.

Lent is a time of spiritual renewal, repentance and reconciliation. In the spirit of this holy season, therefore, I plead with you to reflect upon and reconsider your stance on “homosexual marriage.” As always, I am available to discuss this matter with you personally, and I take this opportunity to extend to you and your family my prayers and blessings.

Sincerely yours,

Thomas J. Tobin
Bishop of Providence


Thank You, Congressman Kennedy (and Bishop Tobin, too)

Now that the dust has seemingly settled over the public debate between Congressman Patrick Kennedy and Bishop Thomas Tobin, several things have become quite clear. 

  1. The cause and nature of the initial debate got lost in a sea of peripheral issues and spin.
  2. Congressman Kennedy irresponsibly throws bombs, distorts facts and retreats.
  3. Bishop Tobin is very articulate and goes where most bishops fear to tread.
  4. US bishops have failed to send a clear, consistent message to the faithful.
  5. The Church is reaping the fruits of forty years of catechesis devoid of substance.

1.  Rep. Kennedy put the ball in motion when he chided the bishops’ “so-called” pro-life position for their insistence on health care reform without public funded abortion or an abortion mandate.  The debate evolved when the congressman stated he was no less a Catholic for his pro-choice position or disagreement with the hierarchy.  Bishop Tobin was compelled as a faithful pastor to stave off scandal by correcting this erroneous claim.  This issue had nothing to do with the separation of Church and State or punishing a politician on his vote on a particular piece of legislation, but everything to do with who defines authentic Catholicism.  Roman Catholic Identity.

2.  Congressman Kennedy fanned the flames, escalated and perpetuated this controversy.  Let’s see…from his incendiary remarks which prompted this public debate, his erroneous claim to authentic Catholicism despite his contradictory convictions, his accusation that Bishop Tobin betrayed confidences, his ‘private’ meeting with the bishop at a busy ‘public’ restaurant at Noon, his interview indicating he would no longer discuss his private faith in a public forum, to his public disclosure of a two and a half year old letter from the bishop requesting him to refrain from presenting himself for reception of Holy Communion–all prompted Bishop Tobin to respond.  Where is he now?  It is evident that Rep. Kennedy’s handlers failed him on this latest controversy.

3.  On the few occasions I have heard Bishop Tobin speak I have been very impressed and I would even say “inspired”.  “Now THAT was a bishop.”   The sad fact is that the majority of bishops would have let Congressman Kennedy’s remarks slide without any comment, or perhaps no public comment.  Bishop Tobin said he felt an obligation to address the public statements and misinformation for the sake of Kennedy himself, and to prevent others from being led astray.  Bishop Tobin’s press releases, public statements, radio interviews, Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly appearances all demonstrated his intelligence, poise (even during Matthews’ disrespectful, condescending, lecturing filibuster) and measured approach in articulating the Church’s teachings.  There is a small list of the ‘usual suspects’–bishops who respond publicly (Abps. Burke, Dolan, Chaput, Nienstedt) .  It was encouraging to see Bishop Tobin join the ranks of bishops not afraid to defend the Faith and use such public scandal as a moment of instruction.


4.  Reaction to Bishop Tobin’s response ran the gamut from those who thought he never should have interfered or went too far, to those who shook fists in the air demanding he excommunicate the congressman.  There is no episcopal handbook on how to deal with such issues, therefore it is up to the discretion and devices of each individual bishop who has the authority over his diocese.  Confusion arises when there are different responses or even public infighting seen among the bishops on how to handle such issues.  There are numerous recent public scandals to cite as examples: President Obama at Notre Dame, Nancy Pelosi on Meet the Press, Sen. Ted Kennedy’s funeral, and now Congressman Patrick Kennedy’s scuffle with Bishop Tobin.  Is a Catholic politician’s public voting record on abortion cause for public scandal?  Remember that scandal is defined as “conduct causing or encouraging a lapse of Faith or religious obedience in another”.  Public scandal requires a public correction and a public repentance.  The inability of US bishops to reach a consensus on dealing with public scandal is divisive and the inconsistency or lack of response can itself become scandalous.

5. Why do people have the erroneous impression that they can be proponents of abortion and still remain faithful, devout Catholics?  Or how is it possible that people don’t see a fundamental flaw in their reasoning when they espouse the “I’m personally against abortion but would not impose my belief on another” argument?  Why is the belief so widespread that it is acceptable to compartmentalize one’s religious beliefs from public conduct, or hold Faith as not only personal but also private.  And why is that not seen as contrary to the very heart of Catholicism?   Why do people mistakenly cite their consciences to justify dissent from central teachings of the Church, and just about everything for that matter?  Why wouldn’t faithful Catholics approach personal disagreements with Church teachings from a disposition of humility and a fundamental assumption that “if I find myself at odds with the Church, I must not have a clear understanding of what the Church is teaching”?  There is genius and centuries of wisdom in the Church.  As Abp. Fulton Sheen once said, “There are only about 100 people that truly hate the Church, but there are millions who hate what they think the Church is”.  The answer to all these questions is simple:  lack of education (catechesis).  Where is the substance in catechetical education for children and young adults?  Where is the adult education?  Where is the continuing formation for the clergy?  Where is the reinforcement from the pulpit?

So, thank you Congressman Kennedy for unwittingly bringing much needed discussions to a national audience.  Thank you Bishop Tobin for having the courage and taking this opportunity to instruct the faithful and challenge the unfaithful.  Public scandal requires a public response, lest complacent inaction creates scandal itself.


Left’s double-standard on religion and abortion

The Left opposes the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion provisions in healthcare reform. So why doesn’t it oppose the YWCA, United Methodist Church, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis for favoring abortion?

Original post by William Donohue

Getting Nancy Pelosi to accept a health care bill that bans federal funds for abortion was the greatest victory scored by U.S. bishops in a generation. It also unleashed an unprecedented attempt to censor them. Their latest enemy is Geoffrey Stone writing in the Huffington Post.

Stone finds it troubling that the bishops are so vocal. He yearns for a time when JFK was president, a time when separation of church and state met his approval. Perhaps the Chicago law professor forgot about Rev. Martin Luther King, the minister who took to the pulpit and lobbied for civil rights in the name of free speech and religious liberty. Should King have been muzzled as well? Or just today’s bishops?

As the following list discloses, Stone is hardly alone in trying to censor the bishops: Rep. Lynn Woolsey, Rep. Diana DeGette, Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Frances Kissling, Planned Parenthood, Feminist Majority, Catholics for Choice, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the National Organization for Women, and many others favor a gag rule. On Nov. 12, Nancy Snyderman of MSNBC spoke for many when she said that “This is going to be a Pollyannaish statement. The Catholic bishops appearing and having a political voice seems to be a most fundamental violation of church and state.” Brilliant.

The following is a partial list of religious groups that want abortion coverage in the health care bill: Rabbinical Assembly, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, Episcopal Church, Society for Humanistic Judaism, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis, North American Federation of Temple Youth, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Unitarian Universalist, Presbyterian Church (USA), Women of Reform Judaism, Society for Humanistic Judaism, Church of the Brethren Women’s Caucus, Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, Lutheran Women’s Caucus, Christian Lesbians Out, YWCA.

So why don’t Stone and company want to gag these groups as well? Let’s face it: they don’t have a principled bone in their collective bodies.


Bishop Tobin Instructs the Faithful, "If you are a Catholic, darnit, it means something!"

Why am I giving the public ‘dialogue’ between Congressman Kennedy and his Bishop, Thomas Tobin, such attention?  This topic has everything to do with our Roman Catholic Identity.  More than the public rebuke of dissenting Catholic political figures, the dialogue serves to instruct all Catholics and shed some light on common misapprehensions.  There are some real gems here, and it is encouraging to hear a bishop speak with clarity and…spine.

Bishop Tobin appeared as a guest on the WPRO Dan Yorke show this past Wednesday and candidly discussed the public ongoing exchange between himself and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, falling short of calling him an outright liar.   But Dan Yorke connected the dots by quoting Kennedy himself in a recap. 

Says Rep. Kennedy:

Whenever I’d choose to discuss with him I would hope that it would remain between us, that’s what I’ve been most concerned with.

I’d initially agreed on a meeting with him and provided that we not debate this in public in terms of my personal faith or things of that sort and, unfortunately, he hasn’t kept to that agreement.  And that’s been very disconcerting to me.  I don’t think this is something that is open for public debate

As I said from the point of view of having him discuss things that I think are of a more personal nature, I think that that’s unfortunate.  But I’m, as I’ve said, I’m not going to engage that any more because, like I’ve said, I’m not.  That’s not something I brought up and I’d prefer to keep that between us.

What?  Bishop Tobin reiterated the fact that his hand was forced by the unwarranted attack by Kennedy and his continued public comments and letters.  There was no ‘agreement’ of confidentiality, especially whe the Congressman sent the Bishop an open letter and sent a copy to the Press.  The meeting between them which was subsequently ‘postponed’ was to be held at a busy Providence restaurant at Noon today–at the Congressman’s request.  How private could this have been?  The bishop noted that within ten minutes every satellite truck in Rhode Island would have been there.  The fact that any confidences were violated “is preposterous”.

Bishop Tobin fielded questions concerning broader issues of identity, the fallacy of pro-choice catholics, and denying Communion.

Bishop Tobin on being Catholic, “Darnit, it means something!”:

Nobody is forced to be a Catholic. If you freely choose to be a Catholic it means that  you believe certain things, you do certain things, you understand and accept the teachings of the church, you understand the disciplines of the Church, you lead a sacramental life.  if you cannot do all that in conscience than you should perhaps feel free to go somewhere else.  But thats not what we’re trying to do.  We’re trying to invite people into the Church but at the same time saying, “if you are a Catholic, darnit, it means something”.

Bishop Tobin on what it means to be a Catholic:

That whole question “what does it mean to be a catholic?” it means something you cannot say you’re Catholic and be pro abortion, it’s false advertising you cannot have it both ways.

Should pro-choice catholics be taking communion, going to Church in good faith? What should they be doing?

They should be really examining their conscience, praying really hard and try to understand why the church so consistently and unanimously says abortion is a terrible evil.  There’s a reason we say those things because we think it is. 

But not telling them to stay out?

No, we’re inviting them in but inviting them in to a real, strong and purified union with the Church–and same thing with Congressman Kennedy.  Patrick, please, we’re not trying to drive you further away.  Patrick, come back.  The doors are open, our arms are open, think about what you’re doing.  Congressman this is about your spiritual well-being, your spiritual growth and I want to do everything I can to help that.


Rep. Kennedy to Bp. Tobin, "I’m not going to engage this anymore"

 The Providence Journal Bulletin carried a story today which quoted Congressman Patrick Kennedy saying he was “not going to dignify with an answer” Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin’s public comments that he could not be a good Catholic and still support abortion rights. Kennedy called those comments “unfortunate,” and said, “I’m not going to engage [in] this anymore.”

For deciding “not to engage anymore” he certainly continued to keep “engaging”.  Rep. Kennedy finds it “very disconcerting” that Bishop Tobin will not agree to keep private the discussion of his faith, and that is why his scheduled meeting with the bishop Thursday has been postponed.  Bishop Tobin’s public letter covered that one, Since our recent correspondence has been rather public, I hope you don’t mind if I share a few reflections about your practice of the faith in this public forum. I usually wouldn’t do that – that is speak about someone’s faith in a public setting – but in our well-documented exchange of letters about health care and abortion, it has emerged as an issue…your description of your relationship with the Church is now a matter of public record, and it needs to be challenged.”

Responding to Bp. Tobin’s question, Do you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish? Do you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly? Do you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially? Kennedy said yesterday that he has a pastor, and “I have my sacraments through that pastor. I have sought the sacraments of reconciliation and Communion and all the rest.” He said he preferred to keep his pastor’s name private.

About the ‘postponed meeting’,  the Congressman said “I had initially agreed to a meeting with him [Thursday], provided we would not debate this in public in terms of my personal faith, but unfortunately, he hasn’t kept to that agreement, and that’s very disconcerting to me.” But he also said he expects to meet with the bishop, if matters of faith will be kept “between us.”

Michael Guilfoyle, spokesman for the diocese, said the meeting was postponed “by mutual agreement,” but noted, “The bishop’s schedule is still free on Thursday if the congressman would like to have that personal and pastoral meeting. The contents between any personal conversation between the bishop and the congressman could certainly remain private. However, the congressman has made this a very public debate, and the bishop is responding to his public comments.”


"Congressman Kennedy should know better…after all, he is a Catholic"

This letter to the editor of the Providence Journal was submitted by a Rhode Island Pastor and was not printed.  It gets press here:

To the editor,

It is easy for a Congressman to make bravura statements.  It is much more challenging for a Congressman to make principled statements that not only attend to immediate issues but also reveal a deeper understanding of the true issues that confront our country.

Unfortunately Congressman Kennedy chooses the bravura in making critical statements about the Catholic Church.  In doing so he completely overlooks the Catholic Church’s rich tradition of both respecting and championing the rights of all individuals …. from conception until natural death.   Few organizations can rival the Catholic Church’s dedication and support for the health needs of all members of our society.  And because of the Church’s dedication to the rights of all, it cannot support assistance to a part of society while compromising  and overlooking the rights of another group.

Bishop Tobin is quite correct.  The Congressman owes us an apology.    It is no mark of achievement that one can champion the health needs of some members of our society when the life-needs of the unborn are trivialized.

Congressman Kennedy should know better.  After all, he is a Catholic.

                                                      Rev. Ronald E. Brassard
                                                               Pastor
                                                      Immaculate Conception Church