Are you a "fake" Catholic? Don’t worry, the majority of Catholics
are. That’s at least according to the religious right which has taken to
doling out titles like "alleged Catholic." The most recent Catholic to
earn the epithet is Kathleen Sebelius – current Governor of Kansas and
Obama’s choice for Secretary of HHS. Her nomination has drawn fire from
right wing Catholic groups including the Catholic League and the American Life League, which refer to her as an "alleged Catholic." After Catholics United came to her defense, Life News, an "anti-abortion" online news site, labeled it "fake Catholic."
According to these extremists, to be a "real" Catholic one must
agree with the U.S. Bishops, and through them, the Vatican, on every
issue, but especially on abortion. Kathleen Sebelius is pro-choice, as
are the majority of U.S. Catholics. But Bishops who don’t live in the
real world where people juggle complicated lives, are free to be moral
scolds. For these doctrinal purists, you’re either with us or against
us. And lately the Bishops enemy’s list grows: John Kerry and recently Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, among the high value targets. And so they oppose Sebelius who the archbishop of Kansas City said should refrain from receiving communion.
The sad irony is that the Bishops end up in cahoots with pro-life
extremists who shun even those fighting to reduce the number of
unintended pregnancies. Sebelius, for instance, while pro-choice, has
achieved many of the goals the pro-life community supposedly endorses.
While Governor she has focused on preventing unwanted pregnancy,
resulting in a dramatic 10% decline in abortion rates during her time
in office. (Genuine pro-lifers, those who actually seek to lower
abortion rates, will find much in her record to commend.)
But results matter little for the religious right, and so they wage
war on her nomination to head the Department of Health and Human
Services (and on any group that supports her). No matter that she
expanded access to adoption and provided pregnancy support for
low-income women. No matter that Sebelius has a nuanced view of
abortion, one that differentiates between personal morality and public
necessity. Sebelius says, "Personally I believe abortion is wrong.
However, I disagree with the suggestion that criminalizing women and
their doctors is an effective means of achieving the goal of reducing
the number of abortions in our nation." Sebelius may well be an
interesting figure for the times. She appears to understand both sides
of this fierce struggle, and, better than most, might be able to push
ahead a common ground approach. This is among the qualities that makes
her a particularly important candidate for this important job.
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It should come as no surprise that the locked-in-a-time-capsule
groups attacking Sebelius are the very same resisting every effort to
reach common ground. They appear too invested in their struggle to
actually embrace solutions. But their very resistance may have advanced
the common ground case, which has been swept in with President Obama.
The attacks on Sebelius has prompted the nascent common ground movement
to take a step together. Both sides have come together to defend her.
The pro-choice side welcomes Sebelius. Leading Christian leaders
"dedicated to common ground solutions to reduce the number of abortions
in America" spoke out today via press release stating,
"[Sebelius] is a Democratic Governor who has been elected by wide
margins in a state where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats two
to one. Her nomination has already won not only the support of
Democrats, but also praise from Republican pro-life senators such as
Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts and governors such as Sonny Perdue of
Georgia. Her record and her relationships with leaders in both parties
are proof that pro-choice and pro-life leaders can work together to
advance a pro-family agenda."
And yet, in a relentless, ad hominen attack, the religious right
dwells on circumstantial connections, hoping to imply dark motives.
Kathleen Sebelius once stood in a room with an abortion provider who
won, in a fundraising auction, a chance to meet her. Seems guilt by
acquaintance is the right’s new cudgel, so be careful who you Facebook
For Sebelius’ upcoming Senate confirmation hearing, the religious
right has chosen Senator Tom Coburn as its hatchet man. Coburn is the
redmeat "pro-lifer," the kind with a decidedly pro-death streak: he’s
called for abortion providers to get the death penalty, leads campaigns
against the condom (in doing so he also held up legislation that helped
uninsured women dying of cancer pay for treatment) and opposes the
cancer-preventing HPV vaccine among other career highlights. (Even
though he’s a Baptist, on these points, Coburn qualifies as a "real"
If falling in line with the US Bishops is a requirement for being a
"real" Catholic, that’s bad news for Catholics, as well as for the
Church which, on this issue, seems to ever more devoutly move to the
fringe of American life. According to a poll of Catholic voters
taken by Catholics for a Free Choice in the 2008 election, 73% say
Catholic politicians should be under no religious obligation to vote on
issues the way the bishops recommend. And like Sebelius, the majority
of Catholics are pro-choice (58%). They vehemently disagree with the
Church on birth control – the church opposes every form but the
as-ineffective-as-it-is-unpopular natural family planning. In
fact, three-quarters of Catholics want health insurance plans to cover
contraception. Nearly 80% of Catholics oppose pharmacists who refuse to
fill birth control prescriptions. A comfortable majority, 64%, oppose
abstinence-only education, another favorite of the moralizing bishops,
and their activist enablers. Based on these numbers, the Church might
want to reconsider its campaign to deny pro-choice Catholic public
officials the eucharist. The Church may refer to pro-choice politicians
as extremists but the majority of Catholic congregants agree with
pro-choice politicians like Sebelius on every one of these issues.
Sebelius thus represents the mainstream view of Catholic believers.
And so the Catholic clergy and its political arm, the so-called
‘anti-abortion" movement, misleads and incites. It creates a
caricature. This may be effective with some, but they are fewer and
fewer. Indeed, deriding moderate politicians like Sebelius marks the
Church as out of step with the majority of Catholics. The Church has
been reduced to focusing on issues that most Catholics, and most
Americans, no longer consider most important, if they ever did.
In the last election, abortion didn’t even make it in the top ten
on the list of Catholic voters’ priorities. Instead, the most important
issues for Catholic Americans were, in order of importance: improving
the nation’s economy; protecting the US from terrorism; resolving the
war in Iraq; making health care more affordable; and protecting social
security. The Church has been noticeably absent in the public discourse
on these issues making its rabid attacks on even moderate pro-choice
officials seems all the more extraneous. (Those who would argue that
Catholic hospitals help make healthcare more affordable by offering
charity care should know that a study
showed that non-sectarian hospitals were three times more likely to
provide charity care than religious hospitals–the bulk of which are
Meanwhile, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops returns to the
same well. As Time magazine exposed last week, it has been staging a
massive campaign against a non-existent abortion bill–a costly and
useless campaign intended to foment anger among the trusting faithful.
Campaigning against a fictional bill instead of focusing on the
real-life struggles of ever-more-pressured Americans. (And, while
fiddling with the sex lives of Americans, the Bishops have failed to
tend to their own business. A survey
by researchers at Villanova University found 85 percent of Roman
Catholic dioceses responding had recently discovered embezzlement of
church money. One in Delray Beach, Fla., involved two priests who spent
$8.6 million on trips to Las Vegas, dental work, property taxes and
other expenses over four decades.)
With campaigns like the one against Sebelius, the Catholic right
wing is succeeding at making the Church less and less relevant to the
majority of the faithful. But then perhaps the church realizes the deep
danger to the religious right posed by the rise of Catholic moderates