The debate over President Obama's Health Bill has been the most hotly-contested issue in the US this past year. Virtually on the eve of the vote in the House of Representatives, 'Network', an organisation claiming to represent 59,000 nuns, wrote expressing support for Obama's Bill.
This public split between US Catholic bishops, who had consistently opposed the Bill, and liberal nuns over government funding for abortion in the Bill, under- mined the hierarchy's influence on the debate and gave so-called 'pro-life' Democrats the political cover they needed to vote for the Bill. The Bill passed the House in late March.
Cardinal Francis George, President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), warned that some forces used the rift to push the legislation through Congress.
'I think what is going on here is the kind of a political tactic that has been used elsewhere, where you divide the potential enemies in such a way that people who can't be brought over to your way of thinking are isolated,' he told Associated Press.
The disagreement among Catholics was over whether the Bill allowed abortion funding. The USCCB believes it does and said they 'regretfully' opposed the Bill even though they had lobbied for health care reform for four decades.
The Catholic Health Association, which represents 600 hospitals, and 60 nuns from various orders and groups, disagreed and urged Congress to pass the Bill.
That break with the hierarchy influenced several anti-abortion House Democrats.
'You've had Catholic hospitals ... a group of Catholic nuns ... I am almost there on supporting the Senate Bill's provision on abortion', Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas said. Cuellar, a Catholic, had voted for an earlier House Bill with abortion funding prohibitions which the bishops had backed.
Rep. Tim Ryan, an anti-abortion Democrat from Ohio, said he too was siding with the nuns and hospitals and voted for the Bill. He took issue with arguments Republicans have used: 'You say this is pro-abortion and yet you have 59,000 Catholic nuns. 600 Catholic hospitals, 1,400 Catholic nursing homes endorsing this bill.'
The bishops said the nuns supporting the bill speak only for themselves and are 'grossly overstating' their claim of representing 59,000 women - essentially every nun in the country.
The rift has escalated a debate over who speaks for the Church on matters of public policy.
'Bishops no longer have a monopoly in public issue discussions in Catholicism,' said John Allen Jr., columnist with the National Catholic Reporter. 'There are a lot more points of reference to bring a Catholic perspective and it's impossible for anyone, including bishops, to control.'
Cardinal George made it clear where the bishops stand on the issue: 'The bishops speak for the Catholic faith as such. Others will speak for themselves.'
Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput complained that Network and the Catholic Health Association 'have done a grave disservice to the American Catholic community by undermining the leadership of the nation's Catholic bishops, sowing confusion among faithful Catholics, and misleading legislators through their support of the Senate bill.'
Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, defended the organisation, saying: 'We are not pretending to speak for the Church. We're speaking from our lived experience of caring for people who do not have access to health care'.
Divisions exist among American nuns: the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, representing 103 communities and 10,000 members, issued a statement siding with the bishops against the Bill.
'I feel badly that others who are responsible for this faith ... have not taken the leadership of the bishops as seriously as they should,' Council President Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan said.
Investigation of the Catholic supporters of Obama's pro-abortion Bill have revealed:
* Kevin Lofton, CEO of Catholic Health Initiatives, the hospital conglomerate that chairs Catholic Health Association, is a regular contributor to Rep. Diana Degette, Democrat co- chair of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus.
* Catholic Health Association's chief policy advocate, Michael Rodgers, repeatedly gives campaign money to the pro-abortion Rep. Judy Feder.
* The Catholic Health Association has advocated aborting children with anencephaly.
* The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has never taken a position on legalised abortion or supported pro-life efforts. The only abortion reference on their website is to support a nun who signed a pro- abortion newspaper ad.
* Network Lobby has never taken a position on legalised abortion or supported pro-life efforts. After a career of ignoring 40+ million abortions, Network head Sister Simone Campbell claims to be more knowledgeable than the USCCB and their pro-life staff.
Even prior to the nuns' sabotage of the USCCB on the Health Bill, the Vatican had launched a 'doctrinal investigation' of the LCWR. The National Catholic Reporter indicated the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) had expressed concerns for several years about the LCWR's attitudes toward Church teachings on issues such as homosexuality, the necessity of Christ's Church for salvation, and the impossibility of ordaining women.
In a 20 February 2009 letter to LCWR leaders, announcing plans for the inquiry, Cardinal William Levada, CDF Prefect, said that the Vatican's concerns had been renewed by 'both the tenor and the doctrinal content of various addresses' given at LCWR meetings.
The bishops themselves may be responsible for what Allen says is their failure to control the 'Catholic perspective'. When they declined to excommunicate the late Senator Ted Kennedy and current Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who are most ardent abortion supporters, they can hardly be surprised if a flock of dissident nuns flies the coop.
Babette Francis, National & Overseas Co-ordinator of Endeavour Forum Inc., was in the USA during the last week of the debate on President Obama's Health Care Bill.