The bishops strike back

Rarely has the U.S. Catholic community been so publicly at odds over a social policy matter as the U.S. bishops and U.S. women religious communities were in the climax of the health care reform debate in March. The bishops, applying what can only be described as speculative interpretations of the plan’s possible outcomes on abortion, urged Catholics to reject the final package of a social reform that the bishops had otherwise supported for decades. Catholic sisters, in the form of the Catholic Health Association and through a letter drafted by Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, and signed by leaders of women religious communities around the country, supported the compromise package. They argued that the health care bill indeed kept federal money out of abortion services and should be supported by U.S. Catholics because of its paramount virtue of extending health services to millions of Americans. The bill also included $250 million in new funding for pregnant women which the sisters argued would have the effect of reducing the number of abortions in the United States.

Anyone wondering if some sort of blowback could be expected from that public showdown, need wonder no longer. Little more than muted episcopal grumbling was heard from the U.S. bishops about the quite contrary position of the U.S. sisters in March, but apparently resentment has been brewing. Now it’s payback time, at last as far as a handful (so far) of bishops are concerned. The Catholic News Service reports that in Greensburg, Pa., Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt has directed diocesan offices, parishes and the diocesan newspaper not to promote the "vocation awareness program of any religious community" that was a signatory to the Network letter. "[A]n environment of dissent from and public opposition to the positions of the U.S. Catholic bishops does not provide an appropriate seedbed for vocations," Brandt’s statement said.

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And In Providence, R.I., Bishop Thomas J. Tobin has decided to pick up his hospitals and go home, requesting that the Catholic Health Association remove the diocesan-sponsored St. Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island from its membership rolls, charging that CHA leadership had "misled the public and caused serious scandal" by supporting health reform legislation that the bishops opposed.

Perhaps the most inflammatory response comes courtesy of Archbishop Raymond Burke, the head of Rome's Apostolic Signatura. In his keynote address April 16 at the Institute for Religious Life´s national meeting at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, Burke is reported to have said that Catholic consecrated religious who openly dissent from the authority of Rome and the church's teaching on life are "an absurdity of the most tragic kind" and should cease identifying themselves as Catholic. Fair enough, but is that what actually happened in March?

In an April 15 defense of the Network position, Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service who is executive director of Network, said she was saddened by Bishop Brandt's decision but still believed the health reform legislation will not expand abortion funding. "Because Network has interpreted health care policy and legislation for decades, we felt confident in our analysis of the bill's language," she said. "We have never disagreed about the moral question of abortion or federal funding of abortion. To us, extending health care to tens of millions of people who lack access continues to be a strongly pro-life position."

It is odd, in light of the continuing communal pain inflicted by the clerical sexual abuse of children and the cover-up of same by bishops around the world (and speaking of which, here is more great news), to hear such talk of the alleged "scandal" caused by U.S. women religious who eyeballed the same legislation as the men in leadership, but came to different conclusions about it. It is passing strange to read the language of dissent and heresy applied to a matter that reflects a disagreement over prudential judgment in public life. The good sisters’ interpretation of the law and confidence in the good intention of U.S. political leaders may prove to be mistaken, likewise the bishops' worst-case scenarioism may prove completely misguided, but being wrong on public policy shouldn’t be cause for igniting the bonfire of the heresies. Unless the real sin of the sisters, at least in the eyes of apparently at least a minority of bishops, was to disagree with them at all. In which case, one wonders when the bishops and priests who happened to likewise disagree with the official statements out of the NRLC and the USCCB on the interaction of abortion and health care reform will finally find the courage to come forward and demonstrate their support of the women religious. The sisters have been standing on their own long enough.

Kevin Clarke

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James Lindsay
7 years 9 months ago
Luckily, there is not much that the Bishops can do to retalliate, which is what really irks them. The sister's vow of obedience is to the order and the Pope, not the local ordinary. This is exactly the same question that occurred over the Notre Dame commencement. Frankly, any bishop who wishes to remove any doubt about whether he is a reactionary is encouraged to do so - it allows the rest of us to know who they are and ignore them appropriately. They have yet to realize that in this day and age, all they have is our respect for their authority and they can quickly end this by proving when they don't merit it. Burke proved this long ago. Confidential to Secretary Sebelius - ignore Burke and his successor and go back to the Communion line.
Jim McCrea
7 years 9 months ago
These guys think that they are striking back.
 
What they are doing is striking out - yet again.
 
Fie on them and their simpering supporters.
Jim McCrea
7 years 9 months ago
Why is there surprise that self-centered, self-protecting, generally careerist bishops don't have the cojones to speak up and criticize their errant brothers?
 
Cowardice is endemic in careerist of any stripe and ilk.
 
These guys are a scandal to and in the church.
7 years 9 months ago
Considering all the controversy and legitimate argument among lawyers, politicians, Sisters, and Catholic organizations on what the bill might do, it is exasperating that the hundreds of bishops were (once again) of one mind, speaking with one voice (as usual), not one apparent differing opinion or stray thought among them.
Molly Roach
7 years 9 months ago
The successors of the Apostles are in trouble.
 
Martin Gallagher
7 years 9 months ago
Molly Roach wrote, "The successors of the Apostles are in trouble."
 
No they aren't.  The gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ's Church and those He appoints to lead it.  The fact that they are speaking with one voice is reassuring. 
 
Those opposed to His Church and His teachings are in trouble.  
 
 
7 years 9 months ago
The Church is my love but also the my greatest source of anguish.  The bishops are becoming totally irrelevant with their contradictory stances, i.e., until recently totally oblivious to the to crime of sexual abuse but endlessly condemning abortion.  My greatest source of hope are religious women.  I believe they will be the ones who save the church.  In the middle century it was individual sisters.  This time it will be groups of women.
William Kurtz
7 years 9 months ago
"The most inflammatory response" was from Raymond Burke. Is anyone surprised? Brandt and Tobin seem eager to follow in his Limbaughesque footsteps.
Michael Laing
7 years 9 months ago
I think it is laughable that the bishops insisted that they had every right to express their opinion, but will not extend that right to others.
Michael Laing
7 years 9 months ago
I think it is laughable that the bishops insisted that they had every right to express their opinion, but will not extend that right to others.
Jim McCrea
7 years 9 months ago
These kind of actions point most of these guys out to be what they are:  autocrats who do not countenance legitimate and public disagreement.
 
They fail to realize the "Big Father Knows Best" simply doesn't fly anymore.  The more they threaten and oppress, the less credibility they will have.
John McGrath
7 years 9 months ago
Eating their own, like any other organization in decline and of dubious credibility. The thought of the US Catholic Church without the real pastors - nuns - is laughable. Just a bozo boys club, a branch of FoX News.
Samra Bufkins
7 years 9 months ago
There's a possible First Amendment case here.  The Supreme Court has overturned advertising bans in situations much worse than this.  I hope the sisters g o to court.
I agree with Mike L-this plays right into the hands of the right wing politicians in this country who support the First Amendment as long as everyone speaks in agreement with them.  And as one who also found no fault with the portion of the legislation in question-I love the article's reference to the plan's "...speculative interpretations of the plan’s possible outcomes on abortion..." I think the bishops are reacting more to the idea that someone-oh my gosh, WOMEN?-disagreed with them. 
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
7 years 9 months ago
So Burke says "an absurdity of the most tragic kind..." He's kidding, right?
 
The Bishops timing is so off on this one. Fine if they are angry or disagree, the how and the now of this is seriously ill-timed. 
 
As for me, I think my timing tells me to go re-read Tom Beaudoin's piece on deconversion again.
CLAIRE BANGASSER MS
7 years 9 months ago
I saw the word 'autocrats' in a comment above, which reminds me of Oliver Wendell Holmes' Autocrat At The Breakfast Table, which leads me to our bishops being Autocrats At The Eucharistic Table...
I notice that our red-robed autocrats have great courage when it comes to bashing the sisters and little courage when it comes to protecting children from sex predators in their ranks...
Once again a privileged class cannot correct itself.
 
Winifred Holloway
7 years 9 months ago
These bishops are amazing.  They are in a hole and they just keep digging.  This issue is not just a matter of disagreement on policy.  The bishops in question simply do not understand that they inhabit a planet on which they and a few kool-aid drinkers are the only inhabitants.
7 years 9 months ago
That the 'usual suspect bishops' target the Sisters is not surprising, The suprise is the continuing silence of the other 300 bishops , the fact that their silence means that they must  all be in complete agreement in supporting the wingnut interpetation of the future effect of this law regarding funding of abortions, So far no funding for abortion  but the  un-insured are being signed up. My guess, if no funding for abortion shows up in one or two years maybe one or two miters might summon the courage to say 'maybe we overreacted, not that there is anything wrong by ovrreacting. Overreacting is our job'  
Martin Gallagher
7 years 9 months ago
It's a shame that so many commenters here do not respect the apostles' successors as Christ desired.  The least you could do is be charitable and pray for them even though you disagree.
John Raymer
7 years 9 months ago
"A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, 'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.' He said in reply, 'I will not,' but afterwards he changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, 'Yes, sir,' but did not go. [Mat 21:28-30]"

Which son is a bishop? Which is Obama? What was the will of the Father?

Our bishops have talked a great talk but have actually accomplished nothing in the way of health care for the poor or the reduction of abortions. They are even closing hospitals and opposing legislation to help the poor. But our president, who was called the greatest abortionist in history even from our pulpits, is the one who is improving health care for the powerless ("the widows and orphans").

Dan Hannula
7 years 9 months ago
I certainly agree with Ed Gleason above; "The suprise is the continuing silence of the other 300 bishops..."  I am surprised too that not one of them would not at least dissent from this over-reaction of their brother Bishops.  Reasonable people can disagree in the proper conclusions from prudential choices.  Apparently, disagreeing with a Bishop (especially if you are a woman) comes with a greater sanction than a mere rebuttal argument.   
George Purnell
7 years 9 months ago
How true! How true! Bishop Tobin misled the public and caused serious scandal. Archbishop Burke: an absurdity of the most tragic kind.
Gerelyn Hollingsworth
7 years 9 months ago
''Luckily, there is not much that the Bishops can do to retalliate, which is what really irks them. The sister's vow of obedience is to the order and the Pope, not the local ordinary.''

-

The vows are made to God, not to the order or to the pope.

There is a lot a bishop can do to punish a congregation that dares to differ:

1) He can disband the congregation and take its property;

2) He can refuse to appoint a chaplain, thus depriving the religious of the sacraments;

3) He can refuse to attend reception and profession ceremonies, jubilee celebrations, etc. or to send a delegate;

4) He can place the congregation under interdict or excommunicate indivdual members;

5) He can remove the religious superior from office and replace her with someone else;

6) Et cetera.

(All these examples may be found in histories of various communities.)
7 years 9 months ago
Many of the good sisters lost credibility a long time ago. I don't think the Bishops need to strike back other than to rescue them from their demise. These orders are suffering a self-imposed death.

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