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Category: Politics, Health, Religion

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend Calls on Progressive Catholics to Resist Pressure from Bishops on Abortion

| December 16, 2009

At a critical moment for health care reform, Townsend says it is essential for religious progressives to speak up.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend broadened the Kennedy family’s dispute with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Tuesday night.

She elaborated on an op-ed she wrote for criticizing the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ opposition to health care reform unless an unprecedented expansion of restrictions against abortion is included. “I don’t think the bishops should be allowed to do that,” she said Tuesday night. “I think we should be speaking out (against them).”

Townsend, former lieutenant governor of Maryland, also said it was crucial for progressives from within religious groups who had fought for women’s rights and gay rights to be “more articulate” about their faith.

“We progressive religious people have our backs against the wall. We allowed it to happen,” she said.

Citing Pew Center polls that show Republicans are more likely to say they are religious than Democrats, Townsend said not allowing one party to claim religion “means speaking about it and talking about it.” Already, she said, evangelicals are changing course, supporting progressive civil rights causes, “while our bishops are stuck.”

She questioned whether “you can build on something that is fundamentally corrupt…. that is collapsing.” If that current structure does collapse, she said, “there will be other Catholic bishops, women and men, who will speak out and take their place.”

Asked afterward about the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ assumption that they held the dominant power in the showdown over abortion and health care, she said “but they don’t. And they’ll find that out.”

Townsend spoke at the home of a longtime Democratic Party activist, Elizabeth Bagley, who is special representative for the Global Partnership Initiative in the State Department. The event was a fundraiser for Interfaith Voices, a nonprofit, multifaith religion news magazine on public radio, started by Maureen Fiedler soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Fiedler, a member of the Sister of Loretto order, is a longtime feminist activist within the Roman Catholic Church. Her radio show now is carried by more than 60 stations and recently won national awards for its work.

The crowd of more than 100 at the event included many nuns and Catholic reformers, as well as leading women in other denominations. Townsend, the oldest child of the late Robert Kennedy, did not refer to the inflammatory public exchange between her cousin, Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) and Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin last month, after Kennedy defied the Conference of Catholic Bishops and voted against the Stupak amendment in the House health care reform bill. The Stupak amendment would effectively bar health care coverage on abortion for the tens of millions of people expected to participate in the government-sponsored insurance exchanges, even if individuals paid for that coverage with their own money.

The bishops, in a political bombshell on the eve of House passage of the reform bill, threatened to defeat the overall health care bill unless the amendment was adopted to replace what had been seen as compromise language on abortion coverage. When Speaker Nancy Pelosi was forced to put it up for a vote, it passed, with the support of 64 Democrats.

Congressman Kennedy, son of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, was one of 50 House Catholics, including Pelosi and Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, who opposed the Stupak amendment. Patrick Kennedy criticized church leaders for threatening to take down the health care reform bill, which would extend coverage to an estimated 40 million Americans, unless their version on abortion was included.

Bishop Tobin accused Kennedy of making an unprovoked attack on the church, called for him to apologize and said his position was “unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members.” Kennedy then revealed that Tobin had called for denying communion to him because of his abortion position.

That fueled a firestorm that has brought in many prominent Catholic politicians. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said the church was taking a dangerous position: “if you’re required (by the church) to make everybody follow your Catholic role, then nobody would vote for Catholics because it’s clear that when you get the authority, you’re going to be guided by your faith.”

Joseph Califano, former Health and Human Services secretary, said the bishops in recent years have stepped up criticism of Catholic politicians who support federal funding for abortion. That may be understandable “but the denial of the Eucharist seems to me to be a sort of a nuclear option.”

Another pro-choice Catholic Democrat, Representative Patrick Murphy of Philadelphia, said, “We don’t legislate at the orders of the Vatican, we legislate what is in our conscience and what we think is good for our country.” Murphy spoke at Harvard University while accepting the John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award from Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the nation’s only Catholic president. Caroline Kennedy, a highly visible Obama backer during the Democratic primary, had been talked up as a potential ambassador to the Vatican. U.S. Catholic groups publically opposed her because of her pro-choice views, and Vatican sources told an Italian newspaper that she was disqualified because of her stand on abortion.

Kathleen Townsend’s speech comes as the debate on health care reform and abortion enters another crucial stage. In her Politico article, Kathleen Townsend called for defeat in the Senate of a Stupak-type amendment backed by the bishops and sponsored by Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE). That amendment was defeated by a majority vote but Nelson is threatening to scuttle the overall bill unless something resembling Stupak is added to it.

If the Senate does pass a health care bill, the next step will be a House-Senate conference to reconcile different language. The Stupak language will be a key element of that discussion, with the Conference of Bishops likely to weigh in strongly again.

Such politicking on abortion shows that the Conference of Bishops “has lost its way,” said Townsend in her Politico article. “Why is it that the bishops are more concerned with restricting millions of American women from making health care decisions that are best for them and their families than they are with ensuring that millions of Americans—women, men, children, immigrants, the poor, the middle class—get much-needed health insurance?”

As Catholics, she said, “are we so laser focused on the issue of abortion that we are willing to join tea partiers and the like to bring down the health care reform bill? And at the enormous expense of millions of Americans who suffer every day because they can’t afford to get checkups, because they must choose bankruptcy in order to save the life of their loved one?

“Not this Catholic.

“As someone who was raised by a family absolutely committed to public service and to making sure that our nation provides health care to the least among us, I am devastated that the bishops are using their influence to try not to increase access to health care for the millions of people who don’t have insurance. Where is their passion for the families who need health care?”