The skirmish between Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy has grabbed national headlines. The Congressman has criticized the Church for opposing health-care reforms that would include taxpayer-funded access to abortion. Furthermore, Kennedy has alleged that Bishop Tobin instructed him not to receive Holy Communion on account of his (Kennedy’s) public stance on abortion. In response, Tobin claimed that he never instructed or demanded that Kennedy refrain from receiving communion, but only “requested” that Kennedy do so. While I have no special affection for either of these men, I wanted to make a brief observation about Catholic teaching and the Catholic tradition that Bishop Tobin claims to be defending. If he believes that traditional Catholic teaching requires Catholic politicians to support the legal prohibition of abortion, then the Bishop would be misunderstanding his own tradition. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas (indisputably one of the most important and canonical sources for Catholic ‘natural law’ thinking) argues that all law (including the eternal law, natural law, and human law) exists for the sake of the common good. Because law exists for the sake of the common good, and not just particular goods, there will be instances in which “rulers rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be prevented, or even worse evils incurred” (Summa Theologica, II-II, Q. 10, a. 11). St. Thomas himself gives the example of prostitution: while acknowledging that prostitution is an evil, St. Thomas (referring approvingly to St. Augustine’s argument in De Ordine II, 4) holds that prostitution should not be prohibited by law, since the legal prohibition of prostitution would prevent certain other goods (e.g., the relative good of providing a tolerable and safe outlet for unpreventable, deviant sexual behavior). Note well: Aquinas’s argument here does not imply in any way that prostitution (or abortion) is morally neutral or morally acceptable. Indeed, prostitution — as well as the destruction of innocent human life through abortion — are instrinsically evil, according to traditional Catholic teaching. But while certain practices (such as prostitution and abortion) are intrinsically evil, it does not follow that it is always right, or even prudent, to combat such evils by means of legal prohibitions. Finally, these observations should not be taken to imply that Rep. Kennedy’s own position is entirely without flaw. While it is consistent with traditional Catholic (and ‘natural law’) thinking to hold that not all evils (including intrinsic evils) should be prohibited by law, it is probably inconsistent with traditional Catholic (and ‘natural law’) thinking to hold (as Rep. Kennedy seems to hold) that intrinsic evils ought to be supported by the use of public funds. In spite of their self-assured, righteous grand-standing, both of these men have alot to learn (and, I think, alot of growing up to do) if they want to be good representatives of their own tradition.