Chris Matthews is known for loudly demanding answers of guests, then talking over them and supplying the answer he wants from them, himself. But last night on Hardball, he outdid himself, berating Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence for withholding communion from Patrick Kennedy over Kennedy's insistence on including abortion in government health care.
This hit Matthews's two biggest hot buttons: First, he considers himself the new guardian of the Kennedy legacy. He was on MSNBC around the clock for the funeral of Mary Jo Kopechne's chauffeur, while his special on the Kennedy brothers ran simultaneously with the week's festivities. Matthews, with leg a-tingling also proclaimed that week that Barack Obama was the new Kennedy brother.
But I think it was the remnants of Chris Matthews's conscience that sent him over the top last night. Bishop Tobin's stand that Catholics must not be advocate for abortion hit close to home for Chris, who still claims to be a Catholic. Perhaps he was afraid he might be next?
I'd call it a heated exchange, except all the heat was on one side, while the Bishop calmly tried to instruct him, and Chris did 80% of the talking, so there wasn't much exchange.
In a moment of priceless contradiction, Chris told the Bishop if he did not propose exact penalties for abortions, he had no right to try to outlaw them, and it wasn't the Church's role anyway. In other words, if he wasn't willing to actually legislate, then he shouldn't propose general moral principles for legislation!
That would be like saying in order for the Church to demand the state enforce "Thou shalt not steal," that the Bishops must also draw up statutes differentiating between grand larceny and petty theft, between armed robbery and embezzlement.
The exchange really must be seen to be believed and to capture the frantic intensity of Matthews's rant. It should be noted, that the only "authority" that Matthews quotes is John F. Kennedy, perhaps giving new literal meaning to the term "political idol."
After an aggressive grilling in which Chris did only his usual overtalking of his guest, Matthews pretty much lost it on camera:
MATTHEWS: 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 (ph), your teaching authority, your excellency.
Where the disagreement is where 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 not 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 woman or a girl, even, to have an abortion? And if there is no penalty for it, are you really outlawing it?
TOBIN: Sure. And it can perhaps be different degrees of penalties, depending on the involvement of the person. There might be some penalty for the woman having the abortion.
MATTHEW: What would be appropriate?
TOBIN: For a doctor performing-
MATTHEWS: 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. And I get back to what John Kennedy said when he was under pressure to explain the separation between church and state, the difference between rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar, which is the law, and rendering to your flock and people like me what is right and wrong.
And I would contest that 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. But how do you do it under the law, your excellency?
But here was the main point the Bishop made that Matthew refused to accept; and it seems pretty unarguable to me that one cannot be a Catholic and deny the Church this role:
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. 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.
Patrick Kennedy is perfectly free to become an Anglican, I'm sure the current Archbishop of Canterbury would welcome him with open arms. If he chafes under even that, he could become a Unitarian and just define for himself what he wants his religion to be. But if he finds his "Irish Catholic" cultural label to be politically useful, he's going to have to deal with some standards every once in a while. Tough luck.
As for Chris, he might want to carry a lightning rod around for a few days…
UPDATE: I learned after writing this post that the conversation Bishop Tobin had with Patrick Kennedy was 3 YEARS ago, according to the Bishop. It was on the issue generally, not on the health care debate, obviously. Kennedy released the info during the health care debate for obvious political reasons, proving he can be just as sleazy as anyone in his family.