Left, right and sacramental center

confessionboothjpgDay after day, the press releases (left and right) and news reports flow into my inbox. They started late in the 2008 primary season and this digital tide tends to rise sharply in the hours just after One Of Those Appointments by the staff of President Barack Obama. You know the appointments that I'm talking about, the ones where he names (a) a Planned Parenthood ally to a position linked to abortion policies, (b) a pro-Obama American Catholic to a position linked to abortion policies or (c) a Planned Parenthood ally who is also a pro-Obama American Catholic to a position linked to abortion policies.

The latest person in the firing line is, of course, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, whose political attributes are nailed down in two very different passages in the solid New York Times report on her nomination to serve as secretary of health and human services. First, there's this:

Ms. Sebelius became one of Mr. Obama's most valued allies when she endorsed him early in the presidential nomination battle. She has been discussed for a variety of positions, including vice president and other cabinet jobs. A two-term state insurance commissioner and second-term Democratic governor in a reliably Republican state, Ms. Sebelius has a reputation for bipartisanship. ...

In selecting Ms. Sebelius, Mr. Obama has decided to risk running headlong into the nation's volatile abortion wars. Since Ms. Sebelius's name emerged as a leading candidate for the health job, anti-abortion groups have assailed her record and vowed to fight her confirmation.

Later, reporter Peter Baker provides a strong set of background paragraphs to flesh out the controversy. I think these pretty much cover the whole terrain, although GetReligion readers who are pro-Vatican Catholics may be able to add more details:

Despite a record of working with Republicans in some areas, health care was one where she often had trouble forging bipartisan agreement. She tried raising cigarette taxes to pay for health care for the poor but was rebuffed by a Republican Legislature. She promoted universal health care but never reached that goal. And she proposed consolidating health care programs, but lawmakers made sure she could not control the new independent authority.

Abortion may prove a lightning rod in her confirmation. Ms. Sebelius, a Catholic, has repeatedly vetoed abortion regulations on legal or policy grounds. ... Ms. Sebelius has defended her record by pointing to adoption initiatives and falling abortion rates in Kansas, but the archbishop of Kansas City last year said she should not receive communion until repudiating her support for abortion rights.

Anti-abortion leaders also criticize her for hosting a reception at the governor's mansion in 2007 attended by George Tiller, a prominent Wichita abortion provider. At the time, Dr. Tiller was under investigation and now is about to go on trial for 19 misdemeanor charges of violating state restrictions on late-term abortions, according to news reports.

Now, readers who pay close attention to Catholic social teachings will notice that the reporter has made sure that readers know that Sebelius has staked out a strong record as a liberal, American Catholic -- with efforts linked to health care for the poor and for those who struggle to maintain health insurance. I am sure she would say -- as she should -- that these policy initiatives are linked to her faith.

However, she has also opposed restrictions on abortion on demand, even when dealing with abortions that take place after fetal viability.

Note the clash here, between two parts of the Vatican's teachings on these issues. A Catholic who backs the church's teachings on abortion and public life would, at the very least, be seeking whatever restrictions are possible in a given political culture PLUS whatever policies can be enacted to help the poor, especially mothers and their children -- born and unborn. The equation has two sides.

Note the disconnect in the following passage from a CNN wire report:

The liberal group Catholics United has come to Sebelius' defense, saying the Kansas governor has taken several steps to lower the abortion rate in her state. The group also has posted excerpts of a 2006 speech in which Sebelius said she opposed abortion.

"My Catholic faith teaches me that all life is sacred, and personally I believe abortion is wrong," she said then. "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."

In May, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, said that Sebelius' stance on abortion had "grave spiritual and moral consequences." He asked that Sebelius no longer receive Communion until she repudiated her stance and made a "worthy sacramental confession."

Notice, again, the subtle effort to pry apart the two halves of the Catholic teachings on the sanctity of life. The key is not whether reporters agree with one side or the other, but whether they realize that the Vatican is calling for an approach to the issue that proclaims the need for both sides of the equation.

There are Catholics on the left who only want one side in public life. There may, in fact, be Catholics (although I have met few, if any) who only want to see restrictions and/or a ban. But the Catholic Church is in the middle, and has proclaimed that practicing Catholics who wish to remain in Communion with the Church should strive to support the whole teachings of the faith.

This is hard, in the context of American politics. Thus, reporters must note the crucial reference by the archbishop to the sacrament of confession. In the end, this debate is about doctrines and sacraments. This is a complex story with three sides and it helps if reporters know this.

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