The Roman Catholic Church has been in the news quite a bit these past few days, primarily because of two stories: (1) the threat of withdrawing social services from the Washington, DC area if the council passes a gay marriage ordinance and (2) the denial of Holy Communion to US Representative Patrick Kennedy because of his political views. Some reports have treated these stories as one in the same, evidence that the lines between church and state are blurring. I'm not sure this is the best way to look at these stories. In my mind, they are actually quite different.
Let's take the DC story first. During the Bush years, an emphasis on faith-based social services allowed religious organizations like the Catholic Church to team with the government to help those in need. In some cases, churches were given government money to assist in these efforts. The government also relied on some religious organizations to carry out what many consider the government's responsibility: to provide a safety net. Charities have always been part of the American landscape, and that is all to the good. But in DC, that charity became more than a mere supplement to government assistance: the Catholic Church now provides care to up to one third of the city's homeless population. The government became reliant on the church, which in turn gives the church enormous power over the government -- so much power that the church is threatening to cut off its aid to the poor if the government does not follow its instructions to deny same-sex marriage rights. This is blackmail. And this is a perfect example of how slippery the slope can be when it comes to church/state partnerships. Even some Catholic governors like Tom Kaine (left, above) have publicly criticized the church for using the poor as pawns in its power game.
The Patrick Kennedy (right) case, it seems to me, is quite different. Because Kennedy supports abortion rights, the Bishop of Rhode Island informed him that he will no longer be able to take communion. Many bloggers have noted that supporting same sex marriage can also be used as a litmus test for Catholic politicians: support gay marriage and you will no longer be able to participate in Holy Communion, the central part of the Catholic mass. This case, however, differs from the DC story in one significant way. I don't see a church/state issue here. The bishop has every right to decide who should take communion. The Catholic Church is not a democracy by any means; it is more like an absolute monarchy. The government should not interfere with the bishop's decision, just as the government (contrary to what misleading ads might have told Mainers) should not be able to tell churches whom they can and can't marry. The Kennedy case may be unfortunate in that it puts many Catholic politicians in the position of having to either publicly disagree with church teachings or follow these teachings in the political forum. As a voter, I have the right and the obligation to make sure all politicians, Catholic or not, align with my beliefs. The constitution guarantees freedom from religion, but once you join a religion, that's between you and the church. I think some Catholics have been in denial about this truth and about the doctrine of the church to which they belong.
I think an issue people aren't addressing is this: the Catholic Church is a hierarchy. Catholics have very little, if any, say in what they are supposed to believe. This is how the church works. I couldn't remain part of a church that functioned this way and that required me to believe certain things, such as LGBT people are sinners, so I left. I know other Catholics who have left for the same reason. The central question here isn't a political one but a personal one that many politicians may need to ask themselves: can I remain in a church that doesn't align with some of my core beliefs? It's a discussion between members of the church and their leaders. Government does not have -- nor should have -- a place at this table. The church has drawn its line in the sand. Now Catholics need to decide if they can stay behind that line in good conscience.