What Nun-Bishop Split Reveals About Today's Catholic Church

Church officials are divided over health care reform

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The bishops who make up the official leadership of the U.S. Catholic Church have steadfastly opposed Democrats' health care plans on pro-life grounds, saying it will not sufficiently cut back on abortions. In an unusual break with the church's leadership, an association representing 59,000 Catholic nuns has endorsed the health care bill, specifically challenging the bishops' anti-reform argument. "Despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions," they said in a letter. "This is the real pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it." We know what this means for health care. But what does it mean for the Catholic church?

  • Within Church, Culture War Rages  The Washington Post's liberal Catholic E.J. Dionne writes, "major Catholic leaders -- most of them women in religious orders -- have picked up the flag of social justice discarded by a bishops' conference under increasing right-wing influence." If reform passes, "I suspect that many bishops would be quietly grateful. In their hearts, they know the nuns are right."
  • Bishops Have Conservative Culture  Commenter Ed Gleason at the national Catholic weekly America Magazine notices that individual Bishops only challenge the leadership on conservative grounds, never liberal. "Not one of the 300 diocese bishops has stood up and said 'I think that prudentially it is  OK to support this health care reform'." He asks, "Only conservative bishops can critique other bishops? Do the bishops have a hidden talking points website?"
  • Bishops Caught Up In Lobbyist Mentality  Their high level of influence, after all, makes them a powerful lobby. Cerebral Catholic journal Commonweal writes, "for the purposes of lobbying, a plausible falsehood is often as useful as the truth. But crying wolf is always a dangerous game. If prolife groups raise false alarms to bully politicians and scare up donations, they risk being ignored when a real threat arises."
  • Nuns Confront Poverty, Bishops Don't  Liberal blogger Karoli explains that many nuns dedicate their lives to helping the needy, which this bill would do, while bishops worry more about abstract moral issues like abortion. "The nuns signing this letter are the ones in the trenches, serving in Catholic hospitals and health care clinics across the nation. They represent those who see the wreckage left behind when people are denied access to care until it's too late, the damage done when poor women cannot get prenatal care, and when the sick are left to their own devices. "
  • Catholic Women Groups Often Progressive  Catholic history professor Catherine Mooney tells the L.A. Times that organizations of women within the Catholic church see themselves as independent. " "I think they've shown over the years that they're not afraid to take a stand. [...] They're speaking out for something that they think is a point of justice, and speaks for Gospel values."
  • Deeper Divide Within Church  Also in the L.A. Times, Georgetown professor Clyde Wilcox says there's a church-wide break "between those who urge no cooperation with any government programs that support same-sex couples or abortion in any way ... and others who favor policies that enhance social justice and provide benefits to the poor, even if this may mean some compromise on these issues."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.