Chris Matthews Brow-Beats Catholic Bishop Over Abortion

Apparently MSNBC's Chris Matthews doesn't want Catholics involved in the political process at all – especially when it comes to abortion. Earlier this month the “Hardball” host declared “The clergy should stay off Capitol Hill.” Last night, he accused Thomas Tobin, bishop of Providence, Rhode Island, of “telling public officials how to set public policy,” “stepping beyond moral teaching,” and “basically assuming an authority” because the bishop requested that Rhode Island Democrat Rep. Patrick Kennedy not take communion due to his support for abortion.

Matthews' based his accusations on a portion of a speech on religion delivered by then Sen. John F. Kennedy in which he stated:

I believe in an America that is official neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish, where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source, where no religious body seeks to impose its will, directly or indirectly, upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.

Bishop Tobin briefly responded that the Church does not want to “dictate what the public policy should be in the United States from a purely Catholic doctrinal point of view,” but “what [it] is trying to do, most of all, is instill good human values but also have Catholics who are in political office be faithful to the dictates of the Church and the dictates of their conscience and the teachings of the Church.”

The point, Tobin said, “is that any Catholic in public office, his first commitment has to be to his faith, not just for a Catholic, but for a member of any religious community. No commitment is more important than your commitment to your faith, because it involves your relationship to God.”

Rather than continue to engage Tobin on that logic, Matthews veered off to badger the Bishop with questions of how he would vote if he were in Congress (which incidentally, Tobin is blocked from doing by an order written by Pope John Paul II) and how to penalize abortion if it were to be outlawed.  

Matthews continued to insist that the Church was “instructing people now how to vote,” and used the Bishop's admittance that he didn't know how abortion should be prosecuted as evidence that the Church should stay out of politics. The host also claimed abortion has nothing to do with morality:

I think you're wrong. I think you're intervening. I think you're getting into law here, and you don't like Congressman Kennedy's voting record in Congress. That's what you're really going after, where he stands on the law. A lot of Catholics agree or disagree in every poll I've seen about what the law should be. They generally accept the teaching authority of the Church, the Magistar [Magisterium], your teaching authority, your Excellency.

Where the disagreement is what the law should be, what the penalty should be. I've never heard of anybody in the church, in the laity, in the clergy, or in the hierarchy saying a woman should be put in prison for having an abortion. And then I said, wait a minute, if you think it's murder, there's an inconsistency here.

And if there is a hesitancy to punish a woman for having an abortion, maybe that's instructive to you, sir, your Excellency, because when you realize you don't really want to punish a woman for having an abortion, under the law, then maybe you should step back from using the law as your tool in enforcing moral authority.

Maybe your moral authority comes from the pulpit and from teaching, and a congressman has a totally different role, which is to write the law. Now, I've asked you three times, your Excellency, to tell me what the law should be. And if you can't do it, maybe you shouldn't be involved in telling Congressman Kennedy how to write the law. You say you don't know how to do it. Well, you ought to try before you tell him what he's doing wrong. That's my thinking.

Because when it comes to the law, it's a secular question. It has nothing to do with the moral – we do a lot of things in this country we don't like, we think are immoral. But the question is, what sanction do you apply to it? And I'm asking you again with respect, because you are here on the show of your own free will, at our request. What should be the penalty for a young women or a girl, even, to have an abortion? And if there is not penalty for it, are you really outlawing it?

Matthews also insisted to the Bishop:

Your problem is you haven't gotten people to obey your moral code through teaching and you have resorted now to use the law to do your enforcement for you. And the problem with that is you are hesitant, even here your Excellency, to state for me now what the punishment should be under the law for having an abortion, because you know, deep down, if you said one minute in prison, you would be laughed at, because the American people, Catholic and non-Catholic, do not think it's a criminal act to have an abortion.

They may not like it. They may think it's immoral. But they don't think it's criminal. And yet you are here bringing the force of the law, the authority of the police, and the bench, the law, the judiciary. You want to bring it all to bear, including the Constitution, to enforce your moral beliefs, which are very valid, and I happen to share them.

Tobin stated “it's not at all unusual to have the moral law reflected in the laws of the land” before he reminded Matthews that he is “not a legislator” nor can he “begin to write those laws.” “My job is to try to promote the truth, the moral law, and to encourage members of my church who freely choose to be Catholic to follow the dictates of their faith,” he told Matthews.

Therein is what Matthews refused to understand. Patrick Kennedy professes to be Catholic – in many ways, he and his entire family owe their political fortunes to their identity as Irish Catholics. But the Church has made abundantly clear that to enjoy full communion with the Church, a person cannot simply cherry pick those teachings he's comfortable with – and least of all on an issue as serious as abortion.

Matthews, however, failed to play or even cite Kennedy's public denigration of the Catholic Church's position.

The representative told CNSNews, a news organization affiliated with the Media Research Center, last month:

I can't understand for the life of me how the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social justice issue of our time, where the very dignity of the human person is being respected by the fact that we're caring and giving health care to the human person – that right now we have 50 million people who are uninsured. You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life-saving health care? I thought they were pro-life.

If the church is pro-life, then they ought to be for health care reform because it's going to provide health care that are going to keep people alive. So this is an absolute red herring and I don't think that it does anything but to fan the flames of dissent and discord and I don't think it's productive at all.

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