One of the central dramas in the healthcare debate was the determined opposition of the most conservative bishops to the Democrats' reform legislation, while many women religious appeared to be strongly in favor of the bill. The social justice organization Network authored a letter of support that was signed by the heads of 59 communities of women religious. Similarly, the Catholic Health Association, which is headed by a nun and represents the interests of several hundred Catholic hospitals across the country, also strongly advocated the reform measures.
The conservative bishops decided to oppose healthcare reform in its final stages because the anti-abortion funding language was not strong enough and because new provisions governing conscience protections for doctors were not included. Reflecting now on what their opposition represented, it is not unreasonable to conclude that some of their public statements broke trust with their fellow bishops, both past and present, and that their views were reasonably opposed by many of their fellow Catholics.
The public comments of Cardinal Francis George, president of the US Catholic Conference of Bishops, and other conservatives largely led the media to conclude that all bishops shared their views supporting the Republican position on this legislation. But no clear effort was made to survey the hundreds of other US bishops during the four months between the last national meeting of the bishops and the passage of the reform bill. Furthermore, there was a clear departure from the convictions of older bishops, who for decades had spoken out forcefully for those millions of people who had no insurance coverage and were at the mercy of fate and the largesse of local emergency rooms.
Now two bishops have taken action to censure women religious who spoke out in favor of universal healthcare coverage. Bishop Lawrence Brandt of the Greensburg Diocese near Pittsburgh has declared that religious sisters from communities whose leaders endorsed the final version of the national health care reform bill can no longer promote their recruitment events in his parishes or in the diocesan newspaper. Bishop Thomas Tobin in Providence, Rhode Island, has withdrawn his Catholic hospital's membership in the Catholic Health Association, calling its affiliation "embarrassing" according to a Religion News Service story.
Both represent hurtful actions to the Church, at a time when many Catholics are calling into question their religious identity in light of the widening scandal engulfing the leadership of the universal Church.
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story quoted Sr. Mary Pellegrino, moderator of the leadership team of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, who said, "Based on our prayerful discernment and careful research with other Catholic-based groups and agencies advocating for comprehensive health care reform, we believe that the bill indicated that there will be no public funding for abortions and that it would not violate doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church." Together with the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, the Sisters of St Joseph of Baden endorsed the March 17 statement drafted by Network and signed by 57 other religious orders.
The conservative bishops argued that the new law might increase the number of abortions. But this speculation was not borne out in analyses by a number of authors. For example, our Catholic Democrats study of the expansion of healthcare coverage since 2006 in Massachusetts had shown that, despite full indigent and low-income coverage for abortion services in that state, the number of abortions fell during the first two years of the program.
These bishops demanded that the law be changed to incorporate sterner language on abortion. Perhaps they did not know that the Republican leadership had decided to oppose any bill, whether it had the bishops' changes or not, thus obligating the House Democrats to pass the existing Senate legislation if any reform was to occur. The recommended changes on abortion, based on the remote possibility of some federal funding of abortion, were a poison pill that would have undermined the entire effort. This was a reality that the USCCB statements in March declined to acknowledge.
The conscience protection issue was also a canard. In the waning days of the Bush Administration, new rules were proffered that "clarified" existing conscience protections by giving healthcare workers (nurses, doctors, maintenance people) the right not to perform any task for any reason. When President Obama rightly opposed this potential cause of organizational chaos in the healthcare system, conservatives predictably accused the new administration of being opposed to conscience protection--despite the President's clear and repeated statements in support of continuing the existing conscience protections. Some conservative bishops took the Republican bait, and loudly declared that the new healthcare law must be changed to include something resembling the last-minute Bush provisions.
Many women religious, themselves invested in delivering healthcare, saw the health reform law as a potential means of decreasing abortion through wider access to healthcare. Now several bishops want to punish these Catholic women for not falling in line with the Republican opposition to reform. This kind of vindictiveness is inimical to Jesus' invocation of the Beatitudes, cited in Matthew 5:8, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."
Illustration is a casting by M. Beaudette