Catholic Extremists Swiftboat Sebelius

For breaking news on threats to birth control access and information visit 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 refers to her as an "alleged Catholic." After the pro-life group 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.

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 friend.

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" Catholic.)

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 Catholic.)

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 like Sebelius.

This post originally appeared on RH Reality Check--Information, commentary and community for Reproductive Health and Justice.