What Does it Mean to be a Catholic?

Dear Congressman Kennedy:

“The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” (Congressman Patrick Kennedy)

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. I also share these words publicly with the thought that they might be instructive to other Catholics, including those in prominent positions of leadership.

For the moment I’d like to set aside the discussion of health care reform, as important and relevant as it is, and focus on one statement contained in your letter of October 29, 2009, in which you write, “The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” That sentence certainly caught my attention and deserves a public response, lest it go unchallenged and lead others to believe it’s true. And it raises an important question: What does it mean to be a Catholic?

“The fact that I disagree with the hierarchy on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic.” Well, in fact, Congressman, in a way it does. Although I wouldn’t choose those particular words, when someone rejects the teachings of the Church, especially on a grave matter, a life-and-death issue like abortion, it certainly does diminish their ecclesial communion, their unity with the Church. This principle is based on the Sacred Scripture and Tradition of the Church and is made more explicit in recent documents.

For example, the “Code of Canon Law” says, “Lay persons are bound by an obligation and possess the right to acquire a knowledge of Christian doctrine adapted to their capacity and condition so that they can live in accord with that doctrine.” (Canon 229, #1)

The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” says this: “Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles, ‘He who hears you, hears me,’ the faithful receive with docility the teaching and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.” (#87)

Or consider this statement of the Church: “It would be a mistake to confuse the proper autonomy exercised by Catholics in political life with the claim of a principle that prescinds from the moral and social teaching of the Church.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2002)

There’s lots of canonical and theological verbiage there, Congressman, but what it means is that if you don’t accept the teachings of the Church your communion with the Church is flawed, or in your own words, makes you “less of a Catholic.”

But let’s get down to a more practical question; let’s approach it this way: What does it mean, really, to be a Catholic? After all, being a Catholic has to mean something, right?

Well, in simple terms – and here I refer only to those more visible, structural elements of Church membership – being a Catholic means that you’re part of a faith community that possesses a clearly defined authority and doctrine, obligations and expectations. It means that you believe and accept the teachings of the Church, especially on essential matters of faith and morals; that you belong to a local Catholic community, a parish; that you attend Mass on Sundays and receive the sacraments regularly; that you support the Church, personally, publicly, spiritually and financially.

Congressman, I’m not sure whether or not you fulfill the basic requirements of being a Catholic, so let me ask: Do you accept the teachings of the Church on essential matters of faith and morals, including our stance on abortion? 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?

In your letter you say that you “embrace your faith.” Terrific. But if you don’t fulfill the basic requirements of membership, what is it exactly that makes you a Catholic? Your baptism as an infant? Your family ties? Your cultural heritage?


Your letter also says that your faith “acknowledges the existence of an imperfect humanity.” Absolutely true. But in confronting your rejection of the Church’s teaching, we’re not dealing just with “an imperfect humanity” – as we do when we wrestle with sins such as anger, pride, greed, impurity or dishonesty. We all struggle with those things, and often fail.

Your rejection of the Church’s teaching on abortion falls into a different category – it’s a deliberate and obstinate act of the will; a conscious decision that you’ve re-affirmed on many occasions. 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.

Congressman Kennedy, I write these words not to embarrass you or to judge the state of your conscience or soul. That’s ultimately between you and God. But your description of your relationship with the Church is now a matter of public record, and it needs to be challenged. I invite you, as your bishop and brother in Christ, to enter into a sincere process of discernment, conversion and repentance. 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,” especially by defending the sanctity of human life for all people, including unborn children. And if I can ever be of assistance as you travel the road of faith, I would be honored and happy to do so.

Sincerely yours,

Thomas J. Tobin

Bishop of Providence

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  • stutmann9

    Good letter, but I wonder about the statement the Bishop made about the Congressman disagreeing with the Church on the issue of abortion (a life and death issue) as being unacceptable to the church and that it “diminishes” his ecclesial communion within the church. It has been said that so-called “Catholics” who are pro-abortion politicians should refrain from Holy Communion until their attitudes and stances change. I would say it BREAKS their communion with the Church. Is there a “suspension” that can be imposed on these folks who choose to scandalize the faithful, which seems to be a serious sin given the words of Our Lord about scandals in Luke 17:1-2 “He said to his disciples, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”
    The identity of “Catholic”, (someone who is faithful and accepting and lives by the teachings of the Church), should be stripped from those who insist on being obstinate, and yet remain in the church to cause scandal. There should be some declaration publicly, by the Bishops, “that certain pro-abortion politicians are not acting in accordance with church teaching and thereby with their actions of publicly and obstinately supporting abortion, they, of their own free will have broken their ecclesial communion and cease to be Catholic, until such time as they renounce such beliefs , confess and repent of this behavior. If they receive communion in disobedience of their Bishop, they cause a grievous sin to themselves and the church which they themselves are responsible for.” These public statements need to be made. Communion with the Church is BROKEN when someone is obstinate in their stance and causes others to do the same. It must be treated as such. Using the word “diminishes” meaning just “lessening”, which isn’t as severe, seems to be something that is still “acceptable”. We need to look back on how the early church fathers treated heretics and schismatics. The Gospel says that if someone even refuses to listen to the church, treat them as you would a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17). In 2 Thessalonians 14, St. Paul writes, “If anyone does not obey our word as expressed in this letter, take note of this person not to associate with him, that he may be put to shame.” In John chapter 6, Jesus let the disciples who did not believe in his words about his Body and Blood to leave him, even asking his 12 Apostles if they were going to leave him because of it. St. Peter said “To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” Seems to me Congressman Kennedy could use this lesson from St. Peter. St. Peter didn’t understand how Jesus could give us His Body and Blood in which to eat and drink, but believed what Jesus said, nonetheless! Thos who choose NOT to believe all that the Church puts forth for belief as regards to Faith and morals, ARE NOT CATHOLIC.

  • sdelange

    To me, the question has always been: Why would someone want to SAY they are Catholic when they are not? If they do not want to adhere to the Church teachings? I don’t belong to the Unitarian Ccurch or the Mormon church because I don’t BELIEVE what they teach. There are plenty of churches with which one could affiliate themselves. Can someone please explain to me why these people even want to be called Catholic?

  • stutmann9

    Just the very statement that Congressman Kennedy made, he thinks he can disagree with Church teaching and still be a Catholic. They seek to pervert the church from within. It is a prideful thing. You can do more damage if you stay in and lead people astray than if you leave. It’s called being a cafeteria Catholic,(picking and choosing what you believe based on your own opinion), or in the good old days, a heretic!

  • stutmann9

    The video link below will explain alot when it comes to traitor Catholics!


  • consecrata

    The reason, I believe, why Kennedy, Pelosi, Sebelius, Kerry, Daschle, Dodd, Biden, et al, believe they can not only accept but promote the extermination of human babies in the wombs of their mothers – up until the 9th month when the baby is kicking and moving in the womb – is because they have received absolutely no consequences for their promotion of this evil. This apparently emboldens them and causes them to consider that they can partake of even the gravest evil and still, not only call themselves Catholic, but receive the Body and Blood of the Lord…this not only hurts the faithful and confuses them, but it also denies the possibility of conversion to those who are engaged in promoting evil. In this, our Bishops are at fault…not all, but most who allow the status quo to continue. Why? Is it for fear of losing federal/state funding? Better to lose all and trust in Divine Providence than to suffer the loss of even one soul…is it for fear of being unpopular or of being considered politically incorrect? Oh well! We are what we are in the eyes of God, no more and no less. Shepherds should care about the well being of the flock entrusted to their care and nothing else. And they can only do that by upholding the teachings of the Church in their fullness…not any watered down version. When we have a Cardinal who hides a letter from the Pope from his fellow Bishops because he disagrees with its contents, we are in trouble. Lives and souls are at stake..millions and millions of them. It’s time to take a courageous stand…no matter what the cost. That’s what Jesus did. That’s what the early Apostles and disciples of Jesus did. That is what so many are doing today…before darkness completely envelopes our land, let the leaders of our Church bring forth the Light and the Truth of Christ and lead their people to Him…and trust that all shall be well.

  • mamreilly

    Bishop Tobin!

    You are courageous, articulate, and AWESOME servant of God and His Church!

    Our prayers are with you!

    Keep up God’s good work!

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Consequences schmonsequences. Our senators and congressional representatives don’t report to the bishops in the exercise of their offices. They report to us, the laity. If there are to be any consequences, the laity will have to decide that pre-born children are important enough to save.

    We certainly appreciate the support of our bishops. It gets frustrating at times to look around and see so much opposition on basic issues of life. We certainly need and deserve the pastoral support of the hierarchy — and of all those who are employed by the hierarchy.

    But pro-abortion politicians are not thumbing their noses at the hierarchy, except where doing so helps their political support among the laity. In some cases, they are using the laity, offering promises of support for favored causes — and sometimes delivering on those promises — in exchange for silence on the question of abortion. In other cases, they simply reflect the political views of the electorate. There do seem to be two prevailing views here. The first is a passive view in which many within the electorate don’t particularly like abortion, but they also don’t see how it affects them. Therefore, they ignore it as an issue and vote their perceived interest about everything else. The second is an active support of abortion within the electorate that these representatives have tapped into successfully.

    In either case, the representatives themselves aren’t the primary targets of our evangelization efforts. If Nancy Pelosi, for example, suddenly becomes pro-life in an outspoken manner, she will get immediately trounced in the next Democratic primary for her district, and given the political realities of San Francisco, whoever trounces her will become the next representative. The only way to change this is to evangelize the people of San Francisco.

    Education, protest and prayer have a chance of working here. Imposing consequences directed from the hierarchy at the politicians has almost no chance of succeeding. That is one reason I like this particular letter so much. Bishop Tobin says a few things that allow a reasonable person to conclude that he is concerned with Congressman Kennedy’s soul, namely, “What does it mean to be a Catholic?” – a question which he proceeds to answer. He also says a few things that indicate his concern for the Church as a whole: “Congressman Kennedy, I write these words not to embarrass you…. But your description of your relationship with the Church is now a matter of public record, and it needs to be challenged.”

    This is what our bishops must do: they must shepherd and teach. The famous and the powerful are their direct charges because only a bishop can hope to break through all the flotsam that stands between a famous or powerful person and a proper understanding of the Church. And the bishops have a positive obligation to ensure that they — and they alone — speak for the Church in the important matters of faith and morals.

    The rest is up to us.

  • stutmann9

    In response to HomeschoolNfpDad,

    Sir, I wish to respond to a few of the issues that you have brought up.
    First is the reporting of these congressional representatives not to the Bishops, but to the laity, whom you say seem to be favoring abortion. It is the responsibility of the Bishop of whom this representative represents to respond to an obstinate supporter of abortion, as we have seen the good bishop do in the case of Congressman Kennedy. He IS challenging Congressman Kennedy on his Catholic identity. The issue at hand IS to define what it is to be Catholic, and what that means to someone who claims that identity as a politician, but fails to act in accordance with that identity. The faithful are scandalized to see that nothing is done about such self-proclaimed Catholics separating themselves from their church and it’s teachings. Imposing consequences from the heirarchy WOULD have a chance of working here because what it means to be Catholic would be defined for Catholics (and non-Catholics alike), hopefully in a uniform manner. Catholics need to see what would be imposed on a politician who insists on publicly and persistently supporting abortion. Catholic identity of such people needs to be called into question and even revoked from them on the critical life and death issue of abortion. Either they believe and act in accordance with Church teaching, or they aren’t Catholic and should not present themselves for Holy Communion until they renounce this belief in the acceptance of abortion. All the bishops must act in unity to impose this restriction, and if the politiicans themselves refuse to obey their bishops in abstaining from Communion, then they themselves are in mortal sin. People need to know this. The Bishops must speak out and define this for us. Bishop Tobin is doing this, and I appreciate and commend him, but I feel that a more stringent response is required for people these days to get the point, and for the gift of repentance for these individuals to take place. I also agree with you that prayer will be the answer. If we all agree to spiritually adopt our congressman and pray for their conversion before the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration that the conversions will take place. Renewing our devotion to Jesus in the Most Blessed Sacrament and pleading before Him for the souls of these individuals to be converted and for the lives of the babies in the womb to be spared from abortion is the answer!

  • stutmann9

    ‘The Council teaches: “‘The obedience of faith’ must be given to God as he reveals himself. By this obedience of faith man freely commits himself entirely to God, making ‘the full submission of his intellect and will to God who reveals,’ and willingly assenting to the revelation given by him.”‘ ~ REDEMPTORIS CUSTOS, JPII

  • bmolano47

    I think if every priest at the Sunday’s mass homily explains what a Being Catholic means our Church in America would be different. Letters like these encourage to practice our faith at anytime anywhere.

  • goldilocks

    Actually, Bishop Tobin shouldn’t be praised for writing this letter. He has only done what he is supposed to do (yes, it’s a sad situation when someone who is doing a normal job looks heroic). Truth is, it’s not our role to play coach and be big-brother to our leaders, it’s the other way around. As a group, North American bishops need to step up and do a better job at running their church organization. In the meantime, let’s not allow our praises to become an apology for their abdication.

    “When you’ve done all that you are supposed to do, still say, ‘I am an unworthy servant’.” Luke 17:10

  • faz643

    In response to ‘goldilocks’ I would like to offer the folowing thoughts:

    I am a nurse. In my day to day practice my patients thank me, express their appreciation for the care I give, even give me hugs or promises to remember me in their prayers. Now, the things they are offering their appreciation for are nothing more than me ‘doing my job’. I try daily to perform my duties with love which is no more than each of my clients deserve.

    My point is that no matter that I am only doing my job, having people, whether it be my clients, my friends, or my children, express their appreciation and support builds me up and helps me in my journey. I would imagine a little bit of geniune appreciation sprinkled on a bishop from his flock would lighten his load a bit as well.

  • PattyK

    BRAVO Bishop Tobin for your moral courage to speak the Truth with love!