Religious sisters’ support for US health care bill discussed at Vatican meetings

7 07 2010 Levada Rode Cardinals William Levada and Franc Rode.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious’ (LCWR) support for the U.S. health care bill passed in March was a topic in lengthy discussions between LCWR officials and Vatican leaders, who also discussed the doctrinal investigation of the group.

In meetings with Vatican officials last April, LCWR officials answered several questions about the group’s support for the legislation despite the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) opposition to the bill on the grounds it lacked strict restrictions on federal funding for abortions.

Following the meeting, the LCWR sent a letter to its membership, according to the National Catholic Reporter which obtained a copy of the letter. The letter said the LCWR officers’ April 23 meeting with Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), focused on both the status of the doctrinal assessment and on the LCWR’s support for the health care legislation.

“We clarified that LCWR does not support abortion and that we have made this position clear,” the letter said, according to the Reporter. The conference officials reported that they explained to the cardinal that they felt a “moral imperative” to ensure health care coverage for all persons.

“We were very clear in stating that our actions were not in opposition to the U.S. bishops,” the letter also said.

The LCWR reported that Cardinal Levada was concerned the organization’s actions were being interpreted as “a public display of disunity within the church.” He was also concerned that they undercut “the perception of the church as one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic.”

On April 24, the LCWR leaders met with Cardinal Franc Rodé, head of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. They discussed LCWR support for the health care bill “at length.” According to the conference’s letter to its members, Cardinal Rodé stated his belief “that we cannot defend our position because it was contrary to the bishops.”

In reply, the conference officials repeated that they did not support abortion and were “quite aware that we are citizens of our country who must take action.” They defended their actions as being based upon their understanding of “all the moral imperatives brought to the table” by the health care legislation.

Cardinal Rodé reportedly said that the LCWR cannot declare a “pastoral direction,” which is the sole responsibility of the episcopal conference. He added that “by our actions we broke unity,” the LCWR letter reported, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

CNA inquired about the discussions with LCWR at the Rome offices of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life but did not receive any reaction.

According to its website, the LCWR claims to have more than 1,500 members representing more than 90 percent of the 59,000 women religious in the U.S. Its president, Sr. Marlene Weisenbeck, F.S.P.A., took part in the meetings with Vatican officials.

In her capacity as LCWR president, Sr. Weisenbeck was a signatory to a March 17 letter by the NETWORK Lobby urging the passage of the health care bill. The letter came at a critical time when the passage of the bill was uncertain. The letter was praised by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and other backers of the legislation.

Though the NETWORK letter purported to represent 59,000 nuns and religious sisters, USCCB spokeswoman Sr. Mary Ann Walsh said NETWORK “grossly overstated” these numbers.

In a commentary in late March 2010, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said NETWORK’s letter was a “critical demonstration of support.” She praised how the nuns “most importantly broke with the bishops and the Vatican to announce their support for health care reform.”

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