The Servant of All, or of None: Why Kathleen Sebelius Must Go

This morning when the alarm clock radio went off, as is often the case the first thing I heard was not the classical music for which I listen to this particular radio station, but rather a summary of news headlines from NPR.  The second of these headlines included an audio clip from U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who was defending herself against calls for her resignation as a result of the thus-far tortured attempts to implement the Affordable Health Care Act.  Rarely do I sit bolt upright in bed because of something I hear on the news, but in this case it would have been difficult to do otherwise.

“The majority of people calling for me to resign,” Secretary Sebelius commented at a press conference, “I would say are people who I don’t work for. And who do not want this program to work in the first place.”  You can watch Secretary Sebelius actually making this comment by following this link.

Sometimes one can almost audibly hear someone’s career hitting the skids, and this is one of those moments.

Over the course of her service in both elected and appointed government office, Secretary Sebelius has done many things which those of a different political persuasion from hers have taken issue with.  That of course is the nature of politics, and indeed of representative democracy.  She has also taken on a rather antipathetic view of her own Catholic faith, a view which she appears to value more than the fraternal correction she has received on numerous occasions from many of her fellow Catholics, including her own bishop.  One can debate whether and to what extent an individual’s religious beliefs become relevant to their place in the public square, or the obligation of public officials who are Catholics to adhere to the tenets of their faith.  I will leave that to those more adept than I at addressing such matters, and refer you for example to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia’s superbly-written book on this subject, “Render Unto Caesar”.

However in this case we are no longer dealing only with someone who has headed off in a policy direction which runs counter to and in fact openly attacks the institutions of her own faith, but someone who does not appear to understand the basic principles of civics, as practiced in the United States.  For as any reasonable American must acknowledge, regardless of their political affiliation, a public servant is the servant of all.  Secretary Sebelius is not simply the employee of the person who appointed her to the position which she presently holds, or of the political party which she happens to belong to, or of those who happen to agree with the policies she is attempting to implement.  She is, whether she likes it or not, here to serve all of us.

It cannot be that we simply accept or ignore the revelation that someone who was appointed to serve all of the people of this country equally has concluded that, in fact, she must only serve those whom she personally prefers.  This is not simply bad governance, it is the very definition of arrogance.  It betrays what is clearly a deeply-held, personal belief, spoken perhaps without thought as to its implications, but nevertheless revealing of the philosophical principles of the speaker,  that to be a public servant is to be selective in one’s servitude.

Our American system of government cannot function when our public servants are only capable of serving those whose views mirror their own.  So when a public servant of the people of the United States cannot come to grips with that fundamental concept, then that servant must either step down or be dismissed.  There are no two ways about it.

Whatever happens with respect to the implementation of Obamacare, clearly Secretary Sebelius has revealed by her own words that she is personally incapable of continuing to serve all of the American people effectively.  If she cannot serve all of us, then she should not be permitted to serve any of us.  And for her own sake, as a fellow Catholic, I hope that when she does leave, as she now must, she will take the time to reflect on what she has done during her time in office, not only with respect to the principles of civil governance, but particularly with regard to the Church to which she belongs.  Let us hope that her replacement, whoever that will be, will be more willing and able to serve the people of this country effectively and professionally.


Distinctions and Differences: The Myth of the “Catholic Vote”

One of the more comment-worthy statistics to come out of Tuesday’s election results was that the majority of self-identified Catholics voted for Mr. Obama, despite the efforts of the bishops to point to the threat of this Administration’s HHS Mandate against Catholic institutions.  In the aftermath, I made the point of responding to those posting about this statistic in my different social media timelines that polls tend to lump together all voters who self-identify as Catholics into a single bloc or category, referring to us collectively as the “Catholic vote”.  And simply put, gentle reader, I would argue that for practical purposes the term “Catholic vote”, at the present time, is little more than a myth, unless we are willing to draw some clear distinctions and differences.

Thinking that the term “Catholic vote” describes some sort of electoral bloc is easier for many, since public understanding in this country of exactly what the Catholic Church is, what it teaches, and how it functions continues to be astonishingly poor.  For example, many continue to believe that we worship statues, think of the Virgin Mary as a goddess, and do not want people to read the Bible – none of which, I emphatically assure you, is true.  I was recently informed by an Evangelical Protestant, to my utter surprise, that I did not believe in the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Holy Trinity.  This was news to me, and all I can say is, if Sister Barbara my 5th-grade religion teacher finds this out, then I am in serious trouble.

Yet this sort of thing not only happens to Catholics on a personal level, but we see and hear it in the media as well, and with particularly alarming frequency given that 1 out of every 4 Americans is, at least nominally, a Catholic.  Unfortunately, sometimes the source of the confusion comes from Catholics themselves, who misrepresent the position of the Church, either maliciously or out of ignorance.  Particularly when it comes to moral issues, there are many prominent Catholics who need to go back to Sister Barbara themselves for a refresher course on what being Catholic means.

For example, the Catholic Church has taught for two thousand years that elective abortion is evil, and a sin against the Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a compendium of the thinking and teaching of the Church on the faith with extensive references to Scripture and the early Church Fathers from the first centuries of Catholicism, we can read the following:

2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:

You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.

Putting aside whatever your personal opinion may be on abortion, gentle reader, look closely and dispassionately at this text and concentrate on the way it is written.  There is simply no wiggle room here on this issue, is there?  The meaning of this section of the Catechism is plain on its face.

However despite the absolute, crystalline clarity which is plain to anyone reading the above statement, there are millions of Catholics in the United States who flat-out reject this teaching.  In fact, I have seen very prominent Catholics argue, bewilderingly, that the Church has not been clear on this subject, or who prognosticate that the Church will one day decide to throw this teaching out the window. Simply put, this is not going to happen.

Yet understanding the fact that there are millions of ordinary Catholics who think that the Church will change and, eventually, “come around” on this issue, is a good way to show why, at the present time, the “Catholic vote” is not really the most useful term, if one is trying to learn anything about politics by employing it.  It tells us absolutely nothing about electoral trends, although unfortunately it tells us a great deal about the failure of efficacious Catholic religious instruction over the past forty years.  It effectively puts someone like Mother Angelica of EWTN and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco in the same political category, and it would be difficult to imagine a more strange pairing.

Catholics are too culturally fractured today to all be stuffed into the same ballot box under the term, the “Catholic Vote”.  This is as a result of a number of factors, including bad catechesis, a lack of courageous preaching from the pulpit, and the poor example of two generations of Catholics more concerned with making everyone feel good about themselves, rather than confronting the realities of sin and secularism.  Seeing the number of Catholics who showed up to vote may tell us demographically whom the Catholics voted for, yes.  However, we need to take the time to draw the distinctions necessary here, in order to understand the often profound differences of both opinion and practice, which exist among Catholics in America today if we are to learn anything from these figures.

Franciscan friar voting in Arizona in 1906

Catholic Women Speak, I Listen

Friday evening I had the great pleasure of attending the book launch for “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves” at the Catholic Information Center here in Washington, D.C.  Dr. Helen Alvaré of George Mason University Law School – who by the way will shortly be publicly debating a woman named Sandra Fluke whom you might have heard of – is both the editor of and a contributor to this new collection of essays by Catholic women.  Dr. Alvaré moderated the event which included presentations by several of the book’s contributors, as well as a Q&A discussion with the panel afterwards. It was a great pleasure to be able to hear from thoughtful, faithful Catholic women themselves, about how they integrate their Faith into their lives, wherever they happen to be personally and professionally.

Dr. Alvaré began by making some observations on the origins of the project, including a letter to the present Administration which has now been signed by over 30,000 women, and how she approached the women who contributed to the book. She noted that one of her greatest concerns, as someone who has worked in the Pro-Life movement for many years, was that what used to be viewed as the opinions of interest groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL seem to have been taken on board by the present Administration as policy. Thus, the sound bites of these organizations have in many cases become the government’s talking points. Dr. Alvaré noted that the continued thinking of these organizations is that children are a damper on a woman’s possibility of success, and that the availability of abortion and contraception makes a woman as “free” as a man – a line of thinking based on an underlying assumption that somehow the woman was either flawed or not free to begin with.

The book covers many subject areas, including the relatively new phenomenon of a woman being the major breadwinner in the home, the sex/mating/marriage market, and the challenges of motherhood.  Other topics include the continued draw of the religious life in the modern world, and ways of living Catholic life to its fullest every day. In addition to Dr. Alvaré herself, four other contributors to the book spoke about their subject areas, as well as their own experiences as Catholic women from different backgrounds and different age groups, including an Ob/Gyn, a college preparatory school theology teacher, an attorney in private practice, and another attorney at a non-profit.

What was remarkable in the presentation of each of the women was that none of them were shrinking violets laboring under the yoke of an oppressive male patriarchy.  Rather it was clear that each was unafraid to speak about her own experiences, and both the pleasant and difficult aspects of the path that she was on in her life. This was not a panel of holier-than-thou church ladies, sitting on a dais and casting disdainful glances at the imperfect, but rather real people, who have joys and sorrows, achievements and disappointments, as we all do, and are trying their best to make their way toward sainthood, instead of presuming they are there already. As one of the panelists pointed out, even saints who lived a century or five centuries ago suffered many of the same fears and doubts that any of us do today.

Moreover, there was a common recognition among the panelists that each felt she was able to exercise her God-given freedom in her life to make decisions and seek answers. None expressed a sentiment that she was somehow being prevented by any external, supposedly anti-woman force from pursuing her own aspirations or the fulfillment of her own identity. In addition, the very good point was made that this book itself was not a part of a “war on women” but rather an invitation to witness to other women, rather than seeking to win some sort of battle.  This leads us to an important consideration.

As a man, I will admit as I did on the Catholic Weekend show the following day that at times I did feel ever-so-slightly the interloper at this discussion. This was not because I was in any way made to feel unwelcome, I hasten to add.  Rather it was because I felt angered by some of the things these women spoke of experiencing first-hand, in contemporary society, which so often tries to make them seem out of touch or propping up some sort of evil organization by their remaining faithful to the Church.

If you have read me lo these many years, gentle reader, you know that anti-Catholicism is something I will not quarter, though I do confess I could be a bit gentler and perhaps thereby more productive in my reactions to attacks on the Church, at times. As Dr. Alvaré herself mentioned during the Q&A session, sometimes you have to send in the Marines, but sometimes you have to send in the Peace Corps. I have no question that she herself would be fully capable of both choosing and leading either option.  However that bit of wisdom on her part, that sometimes seeking to have a conversation rather than an argument will yield better results, was definitely something I need to chew on.

That being said…

Over the past year or so since the present Administration rather foolishly decided to have a go at the Catholic Church, we have learnt much about what it is that women, and particularly Catholic women, allegedly want for themselves. We have been told that a tiny, select group of half-wit activists and theological contortionists collectively represent the views of Catholic women everywhere. To dare to disagree with this intellectual flea circus is viewed as tantamount to advocating the collective subjugation of, or indeed the making of war upon, all women.

The women whom I listened to at this presentation were not subjugated or enchained, but rather very much free. They were free to seek light and nuance where others seek hyperbole and clichés.  More importantly, they are able to exercise their freedom within the context of both their faith in God AND from within His Church. They do not need anyone to tell them how to think for themselves, as those crying “war on women” so haughtily and presumptuously do.

It was a distinct pleasure for me to be able to spend an evening listening to and learning from such a grounded, smart group of women, each individually bringing something unique and beneficial to the conversation, and collectively impressing me with how very much more I need to reflect upon my own Faith and its integration into my personal and professional life.