by Bonnie Erbe

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is a modern-day Crusader of sorts. As defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia, crusade means, "all wars undertaken in pursuance of a vow, and directed against infidels." I use the term Crusader figuratively, not literally, as she's speaking out publicly, she's not leading a war. She's trying to change the minds of her own church leaders -- she's not directing her rhetoric toward infidels. Nonetheless she's leading a crusade for her church that many clergymen see as blasphemous. Townsend may one day be rewarded for her efforts by church leaders, but not today and not anytime soon.

It's extremely important for credible members of any and all major faiths to take on church leadership when they believe it is leading the flock in the wrong direction. Townsend is pressing her political party not to cede the religious vote to the GOP and at the same time trying to prevent the church from using its considerable clout to write its morality into federal law.

Townsend is the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and the only female member of the Kennedy clan to have achieved electoral success. Full disclosure: I know Kathleen -- not well, but I have had her as a guest on my PBS series several times, and she invited me to one event, which I attended, while she was lieutenant governor.

She is urging progressive Catholics to reject an aggressive power grab by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The conference is vehemently opposed to healthcare reform unless the final version contains a considerable expansion of anti-abortion verbiage. The group has lobbied heavily for an amendment to force private insurers to stop providing coverage for abortions if they want to participate in government plans. Versions are contained in the package approved by the full House and the one headed to a Senate floor vote on Christmas Eve.

As Peggy Simpson writes at the Women's Media Center, Townsend considers it "crucial for progressives from within religious groups who had fought for women's rights and gay rights to be 'more articulate' about their faith." She quotes Townsend as saying, "We progressive religious people have our backs against the wall. We allowed it to happen."

She has a point. The bishops in recent years have been extremely vocal in their campaign against Catholic politicians who cross the church's party line on abortion. Most recently, Rhode Island Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, one of Townsend's cousins, was asked by Most Rev. Thomas Tobin, Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, not to take communion due to Kennedy's pro-choice vote on healthcare reform.

As Simpson points out: The bishops . . . threatened to defeat the overall healthcare 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 Sen. Ted Kennedy, was one of 50 House Catholics, including Pelosi and Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, who opposed the [Rep. Bart] Stupak amendment. Patrick Kennedy criticized church leaders for threatening to take down the healthcare reform bill.

If that's not a meteor-sized hole in the wall between church and state, or what little is left of it, what is?

Considering how its positions waver depending on who's in power, my guess is some day the church might modify its anti-abortion stance. After all, this is an institution that took a mere half-millennium to recognize that Galileo was right and the Earth really did revolve around the sun and not vice versa.

This is also a church that has modified critical positions on matters both great and small. On the "great" side, doctrinal teachings from Vatican II, issued by Pope John XXIII, led to so-called liberation theology and church participation in uprisings against dictatorial regimes. In came a new pope or two and, poof, some of those teachings evaporated like smoke from a votive candle.

On the "small" side, the church is currently reconsidering the proper way to give communion. Among proposals that were reportedly approved by the Congregation of Divine Worship in March and presented to the pope were calls to end the practice of receiving communion in the hand and to have priests celebrate Mass facing the congregation.

The former practice was approved four decades ago. Though Vatican officials now deny that changes are in the works, some observers believe it only a question of delaying them. As Richard McBrien wrote in the National Catholic Reporter: Given the possibility that such reversals (sometimes referred to as a "reform of the reform") could eventually be mandated, one can only imagine the confusion, frustration and anger that many priests and laypeople will experience.

If the church doesn't act fairly quickly (in church terms, at least) on larger social issues like abortion and the ordination of women, the leakage of adherents may overtake Catholicism's ability to draft new recruits. Churches are empty all over Europe, where a more-educated populace has been moving on. In the United States, church membership remains stable at around 25 percent of the population, but the demographic is changing. The church is losing long-standing, more-educated members and picking up recent immigrants, many of whom have no high school education.

As has been reported, Pew polls show no other major faith has experienced greater net losses, with 31.4 percent of U.S. adults saying they were raised Catholic and about 1 in 10 describing themselves as former Catholics.

The Inquisition is over and ecclesiastic courts no longer order heretics burned at the stake. Lucky for Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, she will not meet the same fate as poor Joan of Arc. But just as church elders later rescinded Joan's excommunication, some day they might recognize the wisdom of Townsend's approach. Not in my lifetime, but maybe some day.


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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend vs. Catholic Church on Health Reform | Bonnie Erbe

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