President Obama’s nominee to head the agency that guides federal abortion policy is the latest Roman Catholic politician to find herself torn between her political beliefs and her faith.
Already admonished against receiving Communion because of stands she has taken on abortion as governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius now faces even closer scrutiny from the church since she was nominated to serve as secretary of health and human services earlier this month.
What began as a local matter between Mrs. Sebelius and Archbishop Joseph Naumann, the archbishop of Kansas City, Kan., has taken on larger dimensions with the prospect that Mrs. Sebelius could reside in Washington.
Earlier this month, Archbishop Raymond F. Burke - formerly the archbishop of St. Louis but now prefect for the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court - declared that Mrs. Sebelius should not approach the altar for Communion in the United States.
“After pastoral admonition, she obstinately persists in serious sin,” he told CatholicAction.org, a conservative Web site.
Archbishop Naumann, meanwhile, has been in contact with Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl of the Washington Diocese to inform him of the Kansas City prelate’s discussions with Mrs. Sebelius.
A spokesman for Archbishop Wuerl said church officials in Washington would act in accordance with the admonition from Kansas City. A church official in Washington said the admonition does not prohibit priests from serving Mrs. Sebelius if she does present herself, but declined to speculate on what would happen in that event.
Baptist theologian and Mercer University professor David P. Gushee said the situation between Mrs. Sebelius and the Catholic bishops “is a very uncomfortable situation for those of us who are concerned about the role of faith in the public square. I take seriously the concerns of Catholic leaders about one of their own flock. It’s not intrinsically disqualifying but it is a concern.
“Whoever gets named HHS secretary will have to be somebody who will move ahead with concrete abortion-reduction policies. I hope she’ll be asked about that.”
Mrs. Sebelius has vetoed bills restricting abortion and received considerable support from Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita, Kan., abortionist who specializes in third-trimester abortions. That disturbs Lou Engle, the evangelical Protestant founder of the Call, a youth prayer movement based across the state line in Kansas City, Mo.
“I appreciate the Catholics saying she cannot allow the killing of the unborn and remain in good standing with their church,” he said. “That is a national sin. Anyone who holds an ideology that you can legally abort 6- to 9-month-olds in the womb has disqualified herself from the top position of health in the nation.”
Mrs. Sebelius’ office in Topeka, Kan., did not return a call asking for comment. But in a 2006 speech, the governor acknowledged that her Catholic faith teaches “that all life is sacred.”
“Personally, I believe abortion is wrong,” she said. “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.”
Archbishop Naumann said normally he would rejoice at a Catholic having such a prestigious position, but not in this case. “Now she is joining Vice President [Joseph] Biden, [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and a whole raft of others in the Senate and Congress, which I think are sending very confusing messages,” he told CatholicAction.org.
The issue of pro-choice politicians taking Communion after being instructed to abstain was highlighted during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States last year. Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, was photographed taking Communion during the papal Mass with 46,000 in attendance at Nationals Park. During the 2004 presidential campaign, several bishops - including Archbishop Burke, who was then stationed in St. Louis - told him not to do so in their respective dioceses.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, also took Communion, according to published photos or eyewitnesses. Neither pro-choice senator had received public instruction to abstain.
Cardinal Edward Egan of New York revealed in April that he had asked Rudolph W. Giuliani not to take Communion after the Republican former New York mayor did so during a papal Mass in Manhattan.
The nation’s bishops are split over how far to go in enforcing Canon 915, the church law that deals with who may take Communion. It says: “Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”
The first part concerns Catholics who have been excommunicated or placed under interdict - both formal procedures that are rare but considered a legally binding “ban” on a person.
The second mentions those who “publicly and obstinately remain in manifest grave sin.” In that case, the primary burden is on the person to abstain from the sacrament.
The Rev. Lawrence DiNardo, who served as Archbishop Wuerl’s chief canon attorney during the archbishop’s 18-year tenure in Pittsburgh before being transferred to Washington in 2006, said he expects his former boss to wait until Mrs. Sebelius is confirmed as HHS secretary before doing anything.
“I am sure this crossed his mind, but the issue has not yet arisen, so anything said is speculative,” he said.
Archbishop Wuerl “is a very loyal person to the church, very thoughtful, very pastoral,” he added. “He’ll take all different issues into consideration as he makes a judgment. He always tries to make everything a teachable moment.”