By Laura Kilgus Catholic News Service
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (CNS) — Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., has accepted an invitation from Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence to engage in a discussion about the issue of health care reform.
The bishop issued the invitation following the legislator’s sharp criticism about the U.S. Catholic bishops’ role in the debate. According to an Associated Press story, no date has been set yet for the meeting.
Bishop Tobin told Kennedy in an Oct. 27 letter that, as Congress “nears agreement on a final bill, I believe it is important that you are provided with specific facts about the Catholic Church’s position on this critical issue.”
The bishop sent his letter in response to Kennedy’s Oct. 22 interview with Cybercast News Service in which the congressman said the bishops were fanning “the flames of dissent and discord” by insisting that health reform not include abortion funding.
“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 millions of people who are currently uninsured, Kennedy said in the CNSNews.com interview.
“You mean to tell me the Catholic Church is going to be denying those people life-saving health care?” he added. “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 is going to keep people alive.”
In his letter Bishop Tobin wrote: “For many years, the Catholic Church has been clear and consistent in its support of comprehensive health care reform, support that continues to this day.”
“In light of your comments, I would like to extend an invitation to you to discuss the Catholic Church’s longtime support of comprehensive health care legislation and measures that protect and defend life,” he said.
“Please contact my office at your earliest convenience so that we can schedule a meeting to discuss this important matter that affects all Rhode Islanders, regardless of their religious beliefs,” he said.
In an earlier statement about Kennedy’s comments, Bishop Tobin called them “irresponsible and ignorant of the facts” and said the congressman “owes us an apology.”
“The bishops of the United States are indeed in favor of comprehensive health care reform and have been for many years,” the bishop said Oct. 23. “But we are adamantly opposed to health care legislation that threatens the life of unborn children, requires taxpayers to pay for abortion, rations health care, or compromises the conscience of individuals.”
In other reaction, New York Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan called Kennedy’s remarks “sad, uncalled for and inaccurate.”
“The Catholic community in the United States hardly needs to be lectured to about just health care,” he added in an Oct. 26 posting on his blog at http://www.ny-archdiocese.org. “We bishops have been advocating for universal health care for a long, long time.
“All we ask is that it be just that — universal — meaning that it includes the helpless baby in the womb, the immigrant and grandma in the hospice, and that it protects a health care provider’s right to follow his/her own conscience,” Archbishop Dolan said.
In the Providence Diocese, Carol Owens, coordinator for the diocesan Respect Life Office, said Kennedy’s statement was unwarranted and unjust.
“If he had his facts together, he would have know that the U.S. bishops are in favor of a national health care reform but one that supports the life and dignity of all, a plan that assures decent health care from the moment of conception to natural death,” she told the Rhode Island Catholic, the diocesan newspaper.
“Abortion is not health care,” said Father Robert Forcier, Human Life Guild chaplain and assistant pastor of Holy Apostles Church in Cranston.
“Once again, Congressman Kennedy has misled and failed to represent the overwhelming majority of his constituents who object to use of public funds to pay for abortion,” he said.