Thomas Tobin, the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, has made a career out of putting politicians in his crosshairs, but his latest battle over abortion threatens to spiritually exile Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a son of the nation's most famous Roman Catholic family.
Their feud over a proposal expanding the nation's health insurance system has escalated to the point where Tobin has publicly questioned Kennedy's faith and membership in the church and said he should not receive communion, the central sacrament in Catholic worship.
It's an uncomfortable tangle of faith and politics for a congressman whose uncle John F. Kennedy was elected the first Roman Catholic president in 1960 after declaring to wary Protestants that he did not speak for his church on public matters, and that the church did not speak for him.
"I don't think there's any winner here," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a church observer and senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. "I think this is the kind of thing that would be better discussed between a member of Congress and his bishop behind closed doors."
Patrick Kennedy is among several Catholic politicians to clash with their bishops over abortion, which the church considers a paramount moral evil not open for negotiation. Fewer than 20 of the roughly 200 bishops overseeing U.S. dioceses have threatened to deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion, Reese said.
"I don't think you'll find widespread support among Catholics for this," he said.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., has said that U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic Democrat who supports abortion rights, should stop taking communion until she changes her stance.
Former Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis has said he would withhold communion from politicians who support abortion, such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican who also ran afoul of the church because he is divorced.
Kennedy stumbled into the conflict last month when in an interview with CNSNews.com he publicly criticized the nation's Catholic bishops for threatening to oppose a reform of the health care system _ a goal the church supports _ unless it included tighter restrictions on publicly financed abortion.
It was a loaded statement by a congressman representing the most heavily Roman Catholic state. And it drew the attention of Tobin, who in his four years in Providence has criticized Gov. Don Carcieri for launching a crackdown on illegal immigrants, bashed the state's attorney general for supporting gay marriage and excoriated Giuliani over his abortion stance.
An angry Tobin fired back, calling Kennedy ignorant of church policy. He asked for an apology and a meeting.
In a letter, Kennedy agreed to a sitdown and said his Catholic faith is founded on the principles of feeding the hungry, clothing the poor and caring for the less fortunate. Kennedy voted against an amendment tightening abortion restrictions in a Democratic health care plan, but he voted in favor of the overall proposal that included those restrictions.
"While I greatly respect the Catholic Church and its leaders, like many Rhode Islanders, the fact that I disagree with the hierarchy of the church on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic," Kennedy wrote in a letter to Tobin, agreeing to a meeting Thursday. "I embrace my faith which acknowledges the existence of an imperfect humanity."
Their planned meeting fell apart Monday. The bishop called it a mutual decision, but Kennedy accused Tobin of reneging on an agreement to stop discussing his faith publicly. Tobin responded to Kennedy's letter with a scathing criticism.
"Sorry, you can't chalk it up to an 'imperfect humanity.' Your position is unacceptable to the Church and scandalous to many of our members. It absolutely diminishes your communion with the Church," Tobin said, who also appealed to the Kennedy family legacy.
"It's not too late for you to repair your relationship with the Church, redeem your public image, and emerge as an authentic 'profile in courage,'" Tobin said, referring to the title of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book written by John Kennedy.
Tobin says Kennedy, like other pro-choice politicians, should not receive communion. But he has stopped short of ordering Kennedy not to participate.
The Kennedys have a complicated relationship with the church. President Kennedy was never forced to confront the issues of abortion or gay marriage. He received mild criticism from church leaders for opposing diplomatic ties with the Vatican and public funding for Catholic schools.
Patrick Kennedy's father, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, supported abortion rights but also championed other causes of the church, including expanding assistance for the poor and advocating for reforming the immigration system.
Suffering from terminal brain cancer, Sen. Kennedy wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI acknowledging he had been "an imperfect human being" but tried to right his path with the help of his faith. A priest attended to Kennedy on his deathbed, and Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the archbishop of Boston, presided at his funeral Mass.
Rhode Island's Catholics have mixed feelings about the clash.
Michael Bingham, 61, said Kennedy invited the criticism because he calls himself a Catholic.
"What the bishop is saying is 'OK, you're not really a Roman Catholic in good standing because you're not defending innocent life, which the church teaches us we're called to do," Bingham said. "And he's calling him to the plate on that."
Ann Doherty, who attended a morning Mass in Providence, said she believed both men were speaking from their hearts. She opposes abortion but is uncomfortable imposing her choices on other people.
"We have a history in the church of people who have spoken out for the things they believed in. And some of them, we've made saints out of. And others, we haven't."