There have been preludes to this fracas between the Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, Thomas Tobin, and Representative Patrick Kennedy, Teddy's son and the last of the dynasty in public life. It is, of course, a fracas about abortion and the view of the church that Kennedy's (what shall I say?) insufficient opposition to it in public law excludes him from the rites of the faith, especially communion.

Now, the church in this case means the particular bishopric in which Kennedy usually worships. Another bishop elsewhere might not--and most bishops do not--push the matter as far as this. But the Catholic hierarchy in the United States is now enmeshed in a grand mobilization to keep abortion out of the health care legislation. Still, not many diocese have gone as far as Tobin's.

It is almost impossible to conceive of this excision of Kennedy from the community happening in, for example, Massachusetts. Would the archdiocese of Boston have prevented Senator Kennedy from communion or, worse yet, last rites? You can bet it wouldn't.

But, since in America, religion is a matter between individuals and their God the Providence diocese is fully within its rights. This does raise, however, a social issue for all of us. Should the Church, to which most of us have no ties, be able to discipline in whatever way the diocese can those who are "disobedient" to it?