District 6 race highlights key Catholic interests
April 18, 2019
Asked last year by Gov. Pete Ricketts to fill out the term left by the resignation of state Sen. Joni Craighead, Theresa Thibodeau said she prayed about her decision with her husband and their three children.
“My husband was the first to say, ‘I think you can do it, and make a difference for this state,” she told the Catholic Voice.
As a state senator, Thibodeau dove right in. The founder and owner of a day care/preschool in La Vista and member of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha introduced and successfully guided into law legislation that restored regulations for “bring-your-own-beer” bottle clubs. Some establishments, opponents alleged, had become strip clubs featuring women victims of sex trafficking.
It was one of her key legislative achievements, said Thibodeau, a Republican in the nonpartisan Legislature, as she seeks election to the District 6 seat she was appointed to, encompassing part of central and west-central Omaha.
Thibodeau faces Machaela Cavanaugh, a married mother of three, Democrat and daughter of former Democratic Rep. John Cavanaugh. She is Catholic, grew up in St. Joan of Arc Parish in Omaha, and is looking at parishes she might join, including St. Pius X in Omaha.
Currently the conferences and special projects manager for the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, Cavanaugh cited among her accomplishments the successes of another job. As development director from 2005 to 2008 for the Servants of Mary, she helped renovate the motherhouse in Omaha and grew the religious order’s donor base by 300 percent. She also is a graduate of the order’s Marian High School in Omaha.
“I have a great sense of pride in helping the sisters renovate their motherhouse and get them on solid financial footing,” she said in an interview with the Catholic Voice.
In her race for a legislative seat, Cavanaugh said, major issues include backing expansion of Medicaid in Nebraska, which will be on the November ballot after lawmakers declined the last several years to broaden coverage. Cavanaugh said she also hopes to strengthen family leave provisions for people taking care of elderly parents or meeting other needs.
“It’s devastating to me that we have not participated in it,” Cavanaugh said of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. “I think health care is a human right,” she said, reflecting Catholic social teaching. “We should work to do what we can to make sure everyone has health care.”
Faith informs that position and “every aspect of my life,” Cavanaugh said. “It definitely informs who I am and what I’m driven to do.”
Two Catholics in this race, as well as the Catholic voters choosing between them, heightens the importance of Catholic social teaching in evaluating the candidates’ positions.
Faith guides Catholic voters, and the U.S. bishops in their teaching document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” (FCFC) have presented guidance that can help voters make decisions Nov. 6 in national, state and local races, including the District 6 contest. Other resources do as well, including the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (CSDC).
Reflecting the teachings found in the CSDC, “Forming Consciences” outlines four basic principles of Catholic social doctrine: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity (no. 39). These principles serve as the foundation for establishing Catholic positions on major issues.
For example, actions that should never be committed include abortion and euthanasia. These are serious moral evils because they attack human life, the foundation of all other rights, the bishops said.
Other issues, such as the best ways to care for the needy and the environment, can be argued and pursued according to the judgments of prudence – the ability to discern good and choose the right means to achieve it, the bishops say.
Thibodeau said additional achievements in her year in the Legislature included helping pass a budget that keeps Title X federal funding away from facilities such as Planned Parenthood that provide or refer patients for abortions. She also pointed to co-sponsoring another bill that passed, creating birth certificates for families who lose children to nonviable pregnancies.
“I’m a psychologist. I know that can help families heal from that loss,” Thibodeau said.
Both positions taken by Thibodeau were promoted by the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC), which represents the public policy interests of Archbishop George J. Lucas and Bishops James D. Conley of Lincoln and Joseph G. Hanefeldt of Grand Island.
Cavanaugh, on the other hand, takes issue with placing the Title X funding issue in the state budget.
“If this bill is worthwhile and Nebraskans want it, it should stand alone and not have to be voted on each year,” Cavanaugh said, adding that the budget should only be about the cost of running the state. “This is divisive, and we’ll see it every single year.”
Nor should federal funds for health care for low-income people be restricted, or dictate medical access, Cavanaugh said. Already, federal funding cannot be used for abortion, she said.
But among arguments posed by proponents of the Title X restrictions, including the NCC, were that insufficient safeguards existed to prevent that money from supporting or being used for abortions.
The candidates’ positions on Title X indicate a more fundamental rift on an issue of great importance to the Catholic Church and the NCC: banning abortion.
“I am absolutely pro-life,” Thibodeau said, reflecting the conviction of the church (CCC, no. 2271). “I believe a baby from the time of conception is a life. We as legislators must protect vulnerable life.
“I’m watching legislation that Iowa put through on banning abortions after six weeks. I’d love Nebraska to be the next state to do that.”
Iowa’s Legislature this year passed and its Republican governor signed into a law a bill that bans most abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. That’s usually after about six weeks. Currently, Nebraska bans most abortions after 20 weeks, when a baby is thought to be capable of feeling pain.
Cavanaugh, herself on maternity leave with her son, Barrett, said she wants to help make abortions unnecessary by giving mothers and families every opportunity to raise children, such as providing paid family leave and ensuring access to high-quality health care.
But she also believes in a woman’s “right” to have an abortion. Pregnancy can be complicated, she said, including medically, and women and their doctors should be making those decisions.
“I respect the dignity of life and I respect the laws and the (U.S.) Constitution and how we function as a society,” Cavanaugh said. “(Abortion) is not the choice I would make.”
Legislation to allow assisted suicide has been introduced in Nebraska, but it isn’t backed by Thibodeau.
“We should never allow euthanasia. There is no reason for that,” she said, again articulating the Catholic position (CCC, no. 2277). “It is unfortunate when people get sick, but it is up to our Lord when it is time for us to go.”
Cavanaugh isn’t so sure.
“I’m conflicted about that,” she said. “I hate for anyone to be in pain. I wouldn’t pro-actively pursue that in the Legislature. If a bill were put forth … I would try to be very thoughtful and listen to a lot of voices on that.”
Cavanaugh, however, says she strongly opposes the death penalty, a position supported by the Catholic Church (CCC, no. 2267). She was disappointed in the Aug. 14 execution of two-time killer Carey Dean Moore.
“I was very excited when repeal of the death penalty passed and the veto override went through. I was very disappointed by the ballot initiative and restoration of the death penalty and what happened in August.”
“I will be very eager to establish roadblocks to the death penalty,” Cavanaugh said. “This is my faith, but also crime and punishment and financial considerations.”
Thibodeau said that in line with traditional Catholic teaching, she would reserve the death penalty only for heinous crimes, “the most violent offenders” who also pose a risk to the public, including the prison guards who have contact with them. A prisoner for nearly 40 years, Moore did not appear to be a danger, she said.
“I do question if there was something else we could have done,” in Moore’s case, she said.
Thibodeau also took a circumspect position on the ballot measure to expand Medicaid, as opposed to Cavanaugh’s wholehearted endorsement of the effort.
“If voters approve expansion, I will abide by the vote,” she said. But Thibodeau said she is concerned about how the state would foot the bill and whether it might reduce funds for patients already under Medicaid.
Both candidates expressed reservations about proposals to allow tax credits for donations to organizations that give scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to Catholic and other private schools.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, stresses the importance of properly funding education for all students, whether they wish to attend public, private or religious schools (FCFC, no. 83).
“I would support tax credits, so long as it doesn’t take money from public schools,” Thibodeau said.
Cavanaugh said she supports Catholic education, but she can’t support anything that would draw funds away from public education. Nebraska is number 49 out of 50 states for its support of public education, she said.
“We need to do better before other changes are made,” she said.
Both candidates called for immigration reform, and for creating a path to citizenship for people brought to the United States as children – positions consistent with those outlined by the U.S. bishops (FCFC, no. 81).
“I support our Dreamers 100 percent,” Cavanaugh said, referring to undocumented young people protected beginning under President Obama’s administration by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. “We have a real problem in respecting these people as people, and giving them care and compassion.”
Thibodeau said help to undocumented workers should be restricted to those who are not breaking laws or putting people in danger. The immigration system overall needs to be reformed to help speed the process for people who want to live in the United States legally, she said.
“At the end of the day, it is harder to come here legally than illegally,” she said.