With the nomination of Kathleen Gilligan Sebelius ’70 to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Trinity’ s long tradition of women’s leadership in the public square now has a seat at the most exclusive table in the world, the Cabinet of the President of the United States. Governor Sebelius, soon to be Secretary Sebelius, is a remarkable exemplar of those qualities we associate with our ideal of the Trinity Woman: smart, principled, thoughtful, creative, courageous, always diplomatic but unyielding when the cause is justice.
Trinity has long instilled in her students and graduates a profound sense of obligation to work in public service, and over the years thousands of our alumnae have done just that, entering careers in teaching and medicine and law and social work, volunteering countless hours for innumerable civic and community organizations. Among the many brilliant Trinity careers in the public square, some have become quite famous because their work is truly in the public eye: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi ’62 is notable, but so are the Trinity Judges including D.C. Superior Court Judges Jeanette Jackson Clark ’70 and Patricia Broderick ’71, and U.S. District Court Judges Rosemary Collyer ’68 and Claire Eagan ’72. Maggie Williams ’77 was chief of staff to Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady. Barbara Bailey Kennelly ’58 was Trinity’s first Congresswoman, now the chief advocate for saving Social Security (thanks, Barbara!!). Around the country and across the generations, many more Trinity alumnae have held elected or appointed leadership positions in cities and towns, serving on local assemblies and school boards and state benches, or working as public interest advocates and community organizers and volunteers on behalf of numerous civic and social causes.
Because women’s leadership in the public square is so integral to Trinity’s mission, I believe it is necessary to address issues that could discourage rising generations of women leaders from exercising their right and duty to hold public office. Chief among my concerns is the bitter and ugly personal demonization of politicians — particularly women politicians — whose decisions are different from what their opponents desire. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to her credit, is a great example of a leader who has risen above and beyond the ugly underbelly of American political commentary, but the attacks on her are well known and most disreputable. Speaker Pelosi has also shown tremendous grit in disregarding the incendiary dreck that passes for punditry in some quarters. Unfortunately, because of her pro-choice positions and actions, Governor Sebelius now is also subject to extreme and unsavory forms of character assassination by some organizations and individuals.
Worse — much worse — some of the most insidious personal attacks come in the name of religion — or “religion” as the individual commentator wishes to interpret the issue. The deliberate distortion of religious principles to attack individual public leaders in order to achieve some kind of political ends is a serious problem in American political discourse today — a problem that threatens to drive good people away from public life while undermining the very principles on which this nation was founded.
More than 200 years ago, a relatively ragtag band of committed citizens defeated the armies of the British monarch in order to establish a democracy — a government run by, for and through “We, the People.” The Founders and Framers specifically and intentionally vested the people with the power to form the government, elect the leaders, and make, interpret and administer the laws in three branches of government. In their wisdom, the creators of the Constitution and Bill of Rights also quite intentionally established a First Amendment that says that the government may neither establish religion nor inhibit the free exercise of religion. All religions are free to do as they wish, free from government oppression; and the government is free to do what it wishes, without religious dictation. There is a genius in this delicate balance, and religion should act to protect the very laws that give all forms of religious expression and belief a level of freedom too often unknown in other places around the world.
With the First Amendment well in hand, religions — including the Catholic Church, but not exclusively Catholicism, since other religions share this teaching — are free to express their moral teachings robustly on all matters, including the issue of abortion. The Catholic Church, like many other religions, teaches that abortion is a grave moral evil, a major sin, something that no moral person should do. No quarrel here. Faithful Catholics must refrain from having abortions. The teaching is very clear.
The Church also teaches that abortion is such a grave moral evil that no just law can permit abortion. Therefore, says the Church, the laws in the United States that permit abortions to occur must be overturned; the law must reflect the moral teaching. The Church has also called on Catholic politicians to uphold the moral teaching in their official actions. The Church has a right to do so, to call for legal reform, to ask public officials to act on that message. Politicians, who have secular civic duties that are different from the duties of religious leaders, are also free to act according to their best judgment, but their primary duty is to uphold the will of the people who elected them. All of this is fair game in the American political process.
Now we come to the great historical conflict of the First Amendment: should the Church take one further step, insisting on pain of some religious sanction (e.g., withholding communion or even excommunication), that a public official, by virtue of their baptism, must apply the Church teaching to their civil legal actions in making, interpreting or enforcing the law when it comes to abortion?
The debate has raged since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that recognized a constitutional right for women to choose to have abortions without legal penalities. The Catholic Church, among others, believes that Roe must be overturned, and that criminal sanctions must be restored for the act of abortion, which the Church teaches is murder. Other people believe that re-criminalizing abortion is not a solution, and that other means must be found to reduce and eventually eliminate abortions in our society.
Church leaders, good citizens, principled people, doctors, bishops, lawyers, women, governors, members of Congress, presidents — all can and are having a great raging national debate over this issue. Passionate debate is the bedrock of our democracy. (I know, I know — some people will write to me and say that there cannot be any debate about the Church’s teaching. I’m not debating the teaching, but observing the reality of American discourse that becomes more robust the more anybody tries to stop debate.)
Sadly, however, the raging debate seems to be more about rage at times. Sometimes, the rage translates itself into actions that become counterproductive. There’s a thin line between a church leader preaching what the law should be, and asking the Catholic official to uphold that teaching — that’s the bishop’s right — versus taking actions that attempt to intimidate, coerce and publicly humiliate the individual public official through imposing religious sanctions. Such episcopal actions seem to cross the line between Church and State, creating a hostile climate that can have little good effect. The bishop may have the canonical right to do this, but is such action effective in civic life? Under such circumstances, the Catholic official winds up in an impossible position — either ignore the Church or ignore the law. The danger here is manifest: either fewer Catholics will seek office, or those who do will not win elections unless they make it clear that they will ignore the Church. As a practical political matter, public arguments between a bishop and a politician do little to achieve the Church’s public policy goals, while fueling the rabid anti-Catholic sentiment that still courses through parts of American society (just read the “comments” section of any Internet news stories about Catholic matters).
Most bishops are more prudent about confronting Catholic politicians individually in public, being fully mindful of the consequences and seeking more effective methods to achieve religious goals. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued guidelines for Catholic politicians, a statement that is more nuanced than most headlines on this topic. Many bishops are wise, thoughtful and pastoral in counseling their Catholic politicians privately, refraining from public excoriation unless the politician truly invites a public rebuke. Speaker Pelosi triggered a great controversy last fall when she misquoted the Church’s teachings on life during a Meet the Press interview, and that episode triggered a public response from many bishops. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the issue in a pastoral way when he had an audience with Speaker Pelosi a few weeks ago.
Not so with certain advocacy organizations. Shamefully, some organizations who claim to be operating in the name of the Church (but are not) are using smear tactics against Governor Sebelius and have waged an all-out war against her nomination as Secretary of HHS because of her pro-choice decisions as Governor of Kansas. The rhetoric goes beyond acceptable political disagreement to vicious personal vilification. These tactics have evoked a response from Catholics United and other groups of concerned Catholics who are seeking an end to the polarization and public intimidation.
None of the independent advocacy groups speak for the Roman Catholic Church, yet, the media often ascribe some kind of religious authority to these groups. Certainly, delicious headlines can emerge from a nasty scrum over who is “Catholic” and who is going straight to hell, but in fact, these groups do not have any standing to render such serious last judgments. Lost in the controversy is the simple principle we all supposedly learned in Catholic grade school that the state of one’s soul is ultimately a matter between God and the individual conscience.
I have had my own brush with these groups. In fact, I even received some kind of dubious award from one of these insidious groups last year — though the group has never had the courtesy to write to me directly about that, but a member of my diverse fan club sent me a clipping (with an “Amen!” note on it) about something called the “Millstone Award,” as in “tie a millstone around your neck and throw yourself into the ocean…” In the name of life, of course. My crime? Expressing Trinity’s pride in the achievements of Speaker Pelosi and Governor Sebelius on this blog.
Add another boulder to my necklace, folks, I’m not backing down. Trinity is proud of our alumnae who have the guts to enter politics and who devote their time, expertise and entire lives to public service. May more Trinity Women rise to public leadership in future generations!