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.
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.