Fifty-Nine Thousand Nuns Oppose the Bishops on Health Care

Deal W. Hudson
March 18, 2010

“Don’t mess with nuns!” is a comment I’ve often heard over the years from cradle Catholics who were taught by them. The question now arises whether the undecided Catholic members of the House will be influenced by the 60 nuns – each a leader of her religious order – who signed a letter to members of Congress urging passage of the Senate health-care bill now before the House.

These 60 leaders claim to represent 59,000 nuns, and they make it perfectly clear they support the embattled president of the Catholic Health Association, Sr. Carol Keehan, who announced her support for the bill a few days ago.

The letter calls the Senate bill “imperfect” but simultaneously claims it is “the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.” The sisters call the bill “pro-life,” in spite of the fact that the door is wide open for the $7 billion of federal money slated for community health centers to be used for abortion.

What the sisters extol is medical coverage for the uninsured; the end to denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions; support of pregnant women; as well as investment in preventative care and “community health centers that largely serve poor women and children.” These are the same health centers that the bishops insist will spend federal money on abortion.

These 60 sisters not only reject the bishops’ concerns about the Senate bill but also call them “false claims.” According to them, “the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions.”

The 60 sisters, and presumably the orders they represent, thus join organizations like the Catholic Health Association, NETWORK, Catholics United, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Catholics for Choice, Catholic Democrats, and publications like CommonwealAmerica, and the National Catholic Reporter in dismissing the Catholic bishops’ publicly stated position that federal funding for abortion is still permitted in the Senate health-care bill.

Like the sisters in their letter, and Sister Keehan in her statement, most of these groups fail to mention explicitly that they reject the bishops’ analysis of the health-care bill. Is that a sign of respect or merely a refusal to deal with the bishops’ one-page fact sheet directly? Commonweal should be credited for offering a comprehensive if tortured, a rebuttal to the bishops’ position, but the sisters don’t reveal whose analysis they are relying upon.

A few days ago, I described Sister Keehan’s betrayal of the bishops as an example of the failure of the USCCB’s qualified support for the health-care bill. But the spectacle of 60 leaders of women’s religious orders supporting it points to the corrosive effect of the “seamless garment” approach to social ethics and public policy.

One can certainly debate the original intent of Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s now-famous 1983 speech announcing a “consistent ethic of life,” but in practical political terms, the seamless garment became nothing more than a convenient excuse for Catholic politicians to ignore the slaughter of the unborn and all its attendant effects on cultural and family life.

There are thousands of women religious at this very moment who are no doubt deeply embarrassed and troubled by the publication of this letter. These sisters can be found in thriving communities across the country – like the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville. I can confirm that none of the sisters from NETWORK called Mother Assumpta Long in Ann Arbor, or Mother Anne Marie in Nashville, to ask either of them to sign that letter.

The dividing lines in the Church are all too clear, and the effort of women religious, Catholic academics, Catholic journalists, and Catholics representing the medical profession to pass a health-care bill with abortion funding will be a wake-up call for lay Catholics – a de Ja Vu moment of Obama being honored by Notre Dame.

Catholics in the pews are being made more and more aware that something has gone wrong in many of our venerable Catholic institutions and religious orders.

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Read the complete list of signatories here.

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