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Joseph Naumann, Catholic bishops lost in Kansas abortion vote

Written by Javed Iqbal

When the votes rolled in on Tuesday night an amendment to the Kansas state constitution that would remove the explicit right to abortion, what was expected to be a close race was instead shockingly lopsided: The amendment was completely defeated59 percent to 41 percent.

Analysts were quick to frame the result as a setback for the anti-abortion movement, but activists and experts say it also amounts to a repudiation of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, which had shelled out huge sums to support the amendment’s passage. The vote may also suggest a growing backlash against the church’s involvement in the nation’s abortion debate – not least among Catholics themselves.

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In the wake of the vote, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, who publicly supported the amendment’s passage, issued a statement Wednesday lamenting its failure.

“We were unable to overcome the millions spent by the abortion industry to mislead Kansans about the amendment, nor the overwhelming bias of the secular press, whose failure to clearly report the true nature of the amendment served to advance the abortion industry’s cause.”, Naumann wrote.

However, Naumann’s archdiocese and other Catholic organizations also spent millions representing the single largest donor base for the amendment umbrella group known as the “Value Them Both” campaign.

According to financial information and media reports, the Archdiocese of Kansas City spent about $2.45 million on the effort this year, with the Catholic dioceses of Wichita and Salina combined spending another $600,000 or more. Some individual Catholic parishes across the state chipped in, as did the Kansas Catholic Conference, an advocacy group linked to the state’s bishops, which reportedly spent $100,000. Separately, the conservative advocacy group CatholicVote raised about $500,000 for the pro-amendment Do Right PAC, according to the news outlet Flatland.

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It remains to be seen which side raised or spent more money, though opponents of the amendment also enjoyed large donations from liberal groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America and the American Civil Liberties Union. But these mostly secular groups didn’t shy away from faith: In an ad sent to Kansans, one woman talked about her opposition to the change from the perspective of a cradle Catholic.

“Growing up Catholic, we didn’t talk about abortion,” the woman say. “But now it’s on the ballot and we can no longer ignore it.”

According to Natalia Imperatori-Lee, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Manhattan College, the ad probably better represents the views of the average Catholic than the campaigns funded by bishops. The Church officially rejects abortion, but American Catholics, who generally support legal abortion, have become more liberal on the issue over time: According to a recent PRRI study, the percentage of white Catholics who believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases jumped from 53 percent in October 2010 to 64 percent in June of this year. The shift among Latin American Catholics was even more dramatic, from 51 percent in 2010 to 75 percent in June.

“The bishops have been so focused on the idol of abortion law that they have failed to step back and see the complication of criminalizing abortion and what that means — especially for vulnerable, non-white, non-affluent communities,” Imperatori-Lee said. . “If this is what the bishops will do, if this was their plan for a ‘post-Roe‘ world, then Catholics will be very disappointed.”

Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, defended his group’s commitment to the Value Them Both campaign.

“I don’t apologize one bit for our advocacy,” he said in an interview.

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Weber lamented the heightened tensions sparked by the state’s abortion debate — abortion rights protesters were threatened with arrestand a Catholic church in Overland Park was marred – but pointed out that bishops have previously lobbied for issues other than abortion. The conference, he said, was among those pushing state lawmakers this year to expand Medicaid coverage for new mothers from two months to 12 months. Weber also suggested that bishops would fund campaigns around similar issues if put to a vote, as in the amendment vote.

Still, Weber acknowledged that efforts to communicate his group’s broader agenda to mainstream Catholics have fallen short.

“I have to do a better job of letting people know that the abortion issue is not really the primary point of our advocacy at the state capitol or in Washington, DC,” he said.

One organization that financially skipped the Kansas amendment fight was Catholics for Choice, which advocates access to abortion. The group didn’t spend money in Kansas in part because, according to leader Jamie Manson, it didn’t need to.

“The vote in Kansas yesterday shows us the power of pro-choice people of faith when they stand up against the power, money and influence of the Catholic hierarchy,” Manson said in a statement.

She added: “I look forward to more David vs. Goliath victories ahead.”

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The underdog spirit of the Kansas game was embodied by two Catholic nuns who wrote an anti-amendment letter, published in the run-up to the vote, it amounted to a defiance against local bishops.

“A church sign said, ‘Jesus trusted women. So do we,'” the nuns’ letter read. The sisters went on to lament the damage caused by restrictive abortion laws passed in other states, noting that supporters of the amendment focused resources primarily on banning abortion, rather than legislation that would help mothers who bring children to term, such as “health care, parental leave, Medicaid and other supports for poor women.”

Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic and former Kansas governor who served as secretary of health and human services in the Obama administration, praised the nuns’ letter and called the sisters “brave.” Whether it had a broad impact, Sebelius said, it reminded her of when nuns spoke in favor of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, which countered the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ opposition to the bill and is credited with paving the way for its final passage .

With this week’s vote, “I have no doubt at all that the Kansas nuns’ statement made a difference to women who follow what the church has said and what they had been promoting — and listened to the nuns instead,” Sebelius said .

The Kansas poll suggests that the bishops, after winning a long-awaited victory at the Supreme Court in overturning of Roe v. Wademay now be fighting an uphill battle in many states, with uneven support from a rank and file who would rather see them invest church money elsewhere.

“That money could do a lot of good — diapers and formula,” Imperatori-Lee said.

— Religion News Service

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Javed Iqbal

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