NEW YORK — The uneasy relationship between the Kennedy clan and the Catholic Church turned into open warfare Monday after a bishop said he was refusing communion to Patrick Kennedy due to his pro-abortion stand.
Bishop Thomas Tobin, the Roman Catholic leader of Rhode Island, confirmed he had asked Kennedy, a congressman for the north-eastern state, to refrain from taking Holy Communion because of his support for abortion.
Tobin's comments, published in Monday's local Providence Journal newspaper, deepened the row with son of late senator Ted Kennedy and highlighted the Catholic Church's controversial involvement in abortion politics and other sensitive issues.
In his latest salvo, Tobin denied a claim by Kennedy that he actually banned him from receiving Holy Communion, the most sacred of Catholic rites.
Instead, Tobin said he had only requested in a confidential exchange in February 2007 that the nephew of slain president John F. Kennedy not to take communion because of his pro-abortion work.
"If I had told 300 priests of the diocese in any format not to give communion to Kennedy or anybody else, you think that would have remained confidential?" Tobin was quoted as saying.
Kennedy's version of events, quoted Sunday in the same daily, was that Tobin had "instructed me not to take communion and said that he has instructed the diocesan priests not to give me communion."
Although the disputed conversation took place almost three years ago it burst into the open after an ill-tempered debate between Kennedy and Tobin over church attempts to keep federal abortion funding from President Barack Obama's health care reform.
"I thought they were pro-life. If the church is pro-life, they ought to be for health care reform, because it's going to provide health care that (is) going to keep people alive," Kennedy told the Catholic News Service last month.
Kennedy ultimately voted for a health care bill that passed in the House of Representatives earlier this month, but which included a Catholic-backed amendment -- opposed by Kennedy -- restricting abortion coverage.
The Kennedys are America's most famous Catholic family and Patrick is currently the last in a long dynasty of elected officials. But the relationship has long been rocky.
Edward Kennedy, known as Ted, was buried in August after a sumptuous Catholic funeral in Boston despite having been a highly influential champion in the pro-choice camp.
This outraged some in the Catholic community, but had the support of others who called for reconciliation.
Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley justified his decision to take part in the funeral mass, saying: "If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure."
The tensions also illustrate a broader debate about the church's attempts to influence politicians over abortion, gay marriage, and other highly divisive social questions.
John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic senator, was told by some bishops when he was running for president in 2004 that they would not grant him communion.
More recently, Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was also asked to abstain from communion because of her abortion support, US News and World Report magazine reported.
Former New York governor Mario Cuomo, a Catholic, was quoted over the weekend warning that church pressure could end up making politicians unelectable.
But Tobin defended his stand against Kennedy, saying in a statement on his website that he "sought to provide solely for his spiritual well-being."
"I have no desire to continue the discussion of Congressman Kennedy's spiritual life in public. At the same time, I will absolutely respond publicly and strongly whenever he attacks the Catholic Church."
Communion, or the Holy Eucharist, is the bread that Catholics believe is transformed into the body of Christ during the mass.