Divide between bishops and sisters on health care ideological, says public policy expert

Fractures and a “deep ideological divide” within the Catholic Church in the United States have been exposed by the debate over health care reform, an official with the Archdiocese of San Francisco has said. He adds that although private tension has long been recognized, its exposure may be beneficial.

George Wesolek, director of the Office of Public Policy and Social Concerns with the archdiocese, delivered his analysis in a March 24 letter in the archdiocese’s paper Catholic San Francisco.

He wrote that while the U.S. Catholic bishops were critical of the Senate version of the bill because of its abortion provisions, its lack of coverage for immigrants, and its lack of strong conscience protections, several Catholic groups came out in support of the Senate bill.

The Catholic Health Association (CHA) and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) were among these groups. Some characterized the bishops’ stand as false.

“So now we have some nuns accusing the bishops of lying about abortion. Are you shocked? Don’t be because this has been going on for a long time,” Wesolek wrote.

Most of the leadership of the LCWR and the Catholic hospitals have been advancing “a view of Catholic social teaching that reflects a vision that they learned in the 60s and 70s.”

Wesolek charged that this view was “a tired feminism that distorts the role of wisdom” and supports the right to abortion.

“This view rightly offers deep concern for justice for the poor and vulnerable, but like so many in this age-group, minimizes or trivializes the unborn,” he explained.

The LCWR’s lobbying arm NETWORK does not include pro-life legislation as part of its work and if it uses the phrase “pro-life” at all it “distorts” the term to be so “ambiguous and far-reaching that it includes everything,” Wesolek claimed.

“Some have said that the sisters are taking this position because they have deep economic interests because of their hospitals. I disagree. Their rationale is ideological. I believe that they truly believe in health care reform … so much so that they are willing to trivialize the abortion issue and throw in their lot with the Obama administration.”

He pointed out that the group of sisters making these statements is relatively small compared to the number of sisters and communities of women religious in the U.S.

Wesolek noted that in contrast, 103 communities of religious sisters have issued a statement supporting the U.S. Bishops. He directed readers to U.S. bishops’ spokeswoman Sr. Mary Ann Walsh’s clarification of the religious sisters' statement in which she said the endorsement of the bill came from 55 signatories, not 59,000 sisters.

Wesolek said there was value in having the “private tension” within the Church become public.

“Like an angry boil, it is better to break open than to keep festering and growing,” his letter said.

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