The holy war over Kathleen Sebelius


When Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius this week vetoed another in the seemingly unending series of restrictive abortion bills her state’s Legislature churns out, it guaranteed that her confirmation as secretary of Health and Human Services would become a battleground in the increasingly nasty campaign being waged against officeholders who are both Catholic and Democratic.

Politics in Kansas has long been poisoned by extremism on both sides of the abortion question. This latest bill is one of a number that Sebelius, who is not a lawyer, has been advised to veto as unconstitutional. The measure would have amended an existing statute on late-term abortions, which Kansas permits after the 21st week of pregnancy only if the mother is at risk of death or severe physical or mental injury. The amendment would have required far more detailed reporting by physicians and would have allowed prosecutors who disagreed with the doctor’s judgment to file criminal charges. Husbands who objected to the abortion would have been allowed to file civil suits.

“A physician acting in good faith to save a pregnant woman’s life, and using his or her best medical judgment, should not be subject to later criminal prosecution,” said Sebelius, explaining why she vetoed the bill. She is a practicing Catholic who personally opposes abortion. She argues, however, that such opposition does not relieve her of a legal obligation to veto legislation she thinks is unconstitutional.


In 2006, Sebelius said: “My Catholic faith teaches me that all life is sacred, and 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.” The governor contends that other approaches, particularly adoption incentives and better public health programs, are more effective, and she frequently notes that the number of abortions in Kansas has declined 10% during her six years in office.

None of this impresses antiabortion hard-liners such as Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan. Earlier this year, when Sebelius vetoed another measure that would have allowed a third party to seek a court order restraining a woman from obtaining an abortion -- even if it was necessary to save her life -- Naumann forbade the governor to receive Communion unless she changed her views.

So far, so parochial -- and none of this is likely to deter Sebelius’ confirmation, though a great deal is likely to be made of her being “an enemy of the unborn,” as she’s been labeled by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Look for Republicans to make as much out of this confirmation as possible. Here’s why:

For conservatives who’ve been trying for years to pry Catholic voters out of the Democratic Party, the Holy Grail of political advantage is a long-sought clerical edict that would prohibit any Catholic officeholder who ever has cast a pro-choice vote from receiving Communion. From there, it would be a relatively small step to extend the ban to any Catholic who has voted for a pro-choice candidate. Catholic Democrats would be forced to choose between their party and their church.

For years, most bishops -- though unswervingly pro-life -- have avoided such an either/or moment, not least because, on the vast majority of issues apart from abortion, their social agenda coincides more closely with the Democrats than the GOP.

But time is gradually changing the character of the American Catholic hierarchy. The generation of pastoral, politically savvy bishops and cardinals appointed by Pope Paul VI and John Paul II in his early years -- the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington come to mind -- are aging and passing from the scene. In their place a new, more brittle and ultramontane group of bishops appears willing to elevate the abortion issue over all others.

That’s important because in the past, when more conservative bishops have forbidden Communion to Catholic officeholders, some cardinals -- McCarrick and Mahony in particular -- have declined to enforce the ban. Now, however, the new archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl, and Bishop Paul S. Loverde of Arlington, Va., have said they expect Sebelius to obey her local bishop’s order if she moves into their sees.

If conservative activists can persuade enough local bishops to do to, say, Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sens. Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and Christopher Dodd what Naumann has done to Sebelius, the long-sought national edict is a fait accompli.

George W. Bush’s former advisor on Catholic affairs, Deal W. Hudson, said this week that Wuerl’s and Loverde’s acquiescence in denying Sebelius the sacrament “will send the message to other bishops that if they choose to pronounce members of Congress from their dioceses unfit for Communion, their authority will be respected in D.C. and across the Potomac in Virginia. The ramifications are enormous.”

This is a nasty business with serious implications, and the bishops might want to consider where they’ll find themselves if even their own co-religionists come to believe they’re in the business of dictating officeholders’ actions rather than forming consciences.