Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Matthews Does The Unthinkable (2)

When Matthews took on (video below, as in previous post) Bishop Thomas Tobin of the Diocese of Rhode Island on November 23 over the issue of abortion, he raised two important issues: 1) the criminalization of abortion (previous post) and the role of the Church and the Roman Catholic politician.

Matthews raised the latter issue early in the interview (relevant portion below) on Hardball beginning with video of the first Roman Catholic President, John F. Kennedy remarking at a prayer breakfast in Houston

I believe in an America that is officially 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. That's John F. Kennedy, of course, back in 1960 down in Houston.

The bishop of Providence has been engaged in a series of sharp exchanges these days with U.S. Congressman Patrick Kennedy over abortion rights. Over the weekend, Congressman Kennedy revealed that Bishop Tobin, Thomas Tobin, had asked him not to receive communion because of his support for abortion rights in Congress.

Bishop Thomas Tobin joins us now.

Your Excellency, what do you make of that quote from Kennedy back in '60; "I believe in an American-in an America where no public official either requests or accepts instruction on public policy from the pope"?

REV. THOMAS TOBIN, BISHOP OF PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND: Sure. And that's a good reference and a very famous quote, of course.

A little bit of a difference, though. I think what the president, the ex-president, was talking about was the establishment of a national religion. In fact, what we're trying to do is not dictate what the public policy should be in the United States from a purely Catholic doctrinal point of view.

What we're 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.

MATTHEWS: I don't see how you read it that way, Your Excellency. "I believe in an America where no public official, no public official either requests or accepts instruction on public policy from the church."

I don't know how you read that any other way than the way Senator-or then Senator Kennedy said it-no instruction on public policy from his church. You think he meant something different than what he said?

(CROSSTALK)

TOBIN: I suppose there are different ways of approaching that.

But the point 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 with God.

And if your faith somehow interferes with or your job gets in the way of your faith, as I have said on other occasions, you need to quit your job and-and save your soul. Nothing can become more important than your relationship with God.

MATTHEWS: If you were a member of Congress-and I know you're a political junky, from reading about you and talking to my friends about you, Your Excellency-what would be your voting record on abortion? How would you deal with the issue if you got to vote in Congress?

TOBIN: Well, of course, I'm not a member of Congress.

But, if I were, I certainly would never be in a position of supporting any degree of abortion legislation that enables or facilitates or encourages abortion. Keep in mind what we believe about abortion. Every time an abortion takes place, a baby dies. I don't know how people of good conscience, especially people from a Catholic background, could take that position in good conscience.

MATTHEWS: Well, what law would you pass?

TOBIN: Well, I think laws that preserve and...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: That's what we're talking about here, Your Excellency, the law, not the morality of the issue, but the law. You're-you're coming down on Congressman Kennedy and on other public officials because of the way they're approaching the law. What law would you write if you had the authority to do that on abortion rights?

TOBIN: Sure.

I think I would write laws that pre-I would write laws that preserved and protect human life, to the extent that it's completely possible.

MATTHEWS: Right. That's the value. That's the value you support.

TOBIN: We recognize-right.

MATTHEWS: This isn't about values. This is about behavior.

TOBIN: We...

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: What law would you pass? Would you outlaw abortion?

TOBIN: I think that was certainly where our nation would want to move, much like it was before that disastrous decision of Roe v. Wade.

I mean, that was a benchmark, as you know, that...

MATTHEWS: So, you would vote to outlaw it. No, I really want to get...

TOBIN: Sure.

MATTHEWS: We have to get down to this, because your problem with Congressman Kennedy is his position on the law, what the law should read on abortion.

What should the law be? What should a good Catholic, as you would put it, believe about the law? Should the law outlaw, should it ban abortion? Is that what a good Catholic should do?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Because you're instructing people now how to vote. So, tell Catholics now on television how they should vote as members of Congress.

TOBIN: Sure.

Catholics should vote as members of Congress on laws that preserve and protect human right. I don't know that I'm in a position to comment on specific pieces of legislation, because, as you know, there are hundreds of them and thousands of them.

MATTHEWS: Would you outlaw it?

(CROSSTALK)

MATTHEWS: Well, let me ask you a broad question. Would you outlaw it?

TOBIN: Absolutely, because abortion is the taking of innocent human life.

MATTHEWS: Right, I know. Right. So that's where your difference is with president-with Congressman Kennedy. He wouldn't outlaw it. Isn't that your difference?

TOBIN: That's a huge difference. And keep in mind that I didn't go after Congressman Kennedy. I didn't single him out. I didn't look for him. I responded to things that he had said when he initiated his first unprovoked attack on the church, and other things he's written since then. So I haven't gone after him. I've responded to things that he has said consistently....


Bishop Tobin got off to a bad start. When Matthews asks him to comment on Kennedy's statement "I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish, where no public official either requests or accept instructions on public policy from the pope...." Tobin curiously responds "I think what the president, the ex-president, was talking about was the establishment of a national religion." This would have been odd, given that Kennedy's purpose in the speech was to assure the Protestant clergymen in attendance that as President, he would not allow his church to dictate his policy- not that their brand of Christianity should not be the national religion. (They already knew he believed that and reminding them would have been self-defeating.) Credit the host for implying that his guest's interpretation was off-base, rather than dishonest: "I don't know how you read that any other way than the way Senator-or then Senator Kennedy said it-no instruction on public policy from his church. You think he meant something different than what he said?"

Matthews went on to elicit an extraordinary comment from Bishop Tobin: "But the point 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." That, if it were official church position, would come as a surprise to those of us non-Catholics who voted for John Kerry for president, expecting his priority if elected to be the the overall welfare of the American people.

But Matthews wasn't able to make his critical point until the Bishop repeatedly refused, or was unable, to say what the penalty should be for a woman who has obtained an illegal abortion and he stated, significantly, "Well, again, I think it would depend on the specific piece of legislation that was crafted. And I'm not in a position-I wouldn't even pretend to be in a position to do that." Matthews then explained:

....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....

No, let's get to the woman. No, you have no idea, and it's not your area. And yet this is the very area you've transgressed in. You've gone into the area of lawmaking, and condemned the behavior of public officials who have to write public policy.


Game, set, match. Fortunately, Bishop Tobin does not speak for the entire American Roman Catholic Church, which has a legal and ethical right to speak out on public policy. But if a clergyman cannot- or will not- say "what the law should be," he should not be telling a legislator how to write the law, nor to "tell him what he's doing wrong." Bishop Tobin indeed "went into the area of lawmaking" and then when pressed, begged off, claiming "I don't know that I'm in a position to comment on specific pieces of legislation, because, as you know, there are hundreds of them and thousands of them."

Trying to have it both ways is not a means of establishing moral clarity. Even if Chris Matthews had not established that, he would have served a vital public purpose simply simply in exposing sensitive issues and, more courageously, doing so with a clergyman.


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