Kathleen Sebelius (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/GettyImages)
He's the most influential, confrontational, controversial Irish Catholic you’ve never heard of.

He makes Maureen Dowd of The New York Times angry.  He makes Bill Donohue of the Catholic League stand up and cheer.  And each and every May he reignites what some have come to call the “civil war” in the American Catholic Church.

His name is Patrick J. Reilly.

Reilly is the founder and president of a Washington group called the Cardinal Newman Society.  For better or worse, Reilly is widely credited for pressuring Catholic colleges that invite speakers who may be Catholic but do not strictly adhere to church teaching.

The lighting rod this year is Kathleen Sebelius, who was invited to take part in Georgetown University’s commencement ceremonies.  The Irish American Sebelius (born Kathleen Gilligan in Cincinnati, the daughter of former Ohio governor John Gilligan) is currently Health and Human Services secretary and was the public face of the Obama administration’s efforts to compel employers – including those who work for the Catholic Church – to pay for medical coverage which might include contraception. 

The conflict outraged conservative Catholics, who slammed the Obama administration for assaulting religious liberty.  The controversy catapulted New York’s Archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan to the
national stage. 

Just this week, Dolan led a coalition of Catholic dioceses and colleges in a court challenge to the Obama administration.

The same sides of that debate were up in arms again this week, either defending or blasting Sebelius’s selection as a speaker at Georgetown University, the oldest Jesuit institution in the U.S. 

As David Gibson noted, writing for Religion News Service, “The Washington archdiocese issued a statement (calling) the Sebelius invitation a ‘shocking’ action that undermines the Catholic Church and supports the administration in what the hierarchy says is an unprecedented attack on religious freedom ... ‘It's practically a civil war,’ Michael Brendan Dougherty, politics editor at Business Insider and a Catholic, wrote on Wednesday.”

That would make Patrick J. Reilly a civil warrior. 

Those seeking change in the church, or hoping at least for debate on controversial issues, target the
Cardinal Newman Society as a defender of an excessively rigid theology that has alienated many Irish American Catholics.

“The latest kooky kerfuffle was sparked by the invitation to Kathleen Sebelius,” Dowd wrote in the Times this week. “The silver-haired former Kansas governor is a practicing Catholic with a husband and son who graduated from Georgetown.

“But because she fought to get a federal mandate for health insurance coverage of contraceptives and morning-after pills, including at Catholic schools and hospitals, Sebelius is on the hit list of a conservative Catholic group in Virginia, the Cardinal Newman Society, which militates to bar speakers at Catholic schools who support gay rights or abortion rights.”

As leader of the Newman Society, Reilly is surely glad to count Dowd as an enemy.  And it is understandable that conservatives want to draw a line, lest Catholicism become so watered down we might as well all become Protestants.

So of course they shudder when they hear someone like Mario Cuomo say, “Christ is my religion, the church is not.” 

Reilly and others argue that the church and its teachings are timeless, and thus should not bend. 

The problem is, the church has always bent and wavered and changed.  And to say the Catholic Church is devoid of political debate and maneuvering is just silly. 

There are many debates within the Vatican before the Pope speaks for all of the world’s Catholics.
The pope himself is selected via a political process.

Meanwhile, here in the U.S., liberals and conservatives have to decide what kind of church will remain vibrant and relevant in the 21st Century. 

The only way to do that is to engage in debate and discussion, and that includes inviting a diverse range of speakers to Catholic institutions.

Otherwise, there will barely be enough Catholics left to have a debate.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tomdeignan@earthlink.net or facebook.com/tomdeignan)