American Nuns Out In Force To Support Health Bill

The debate on health care reform has brought about deep divisions within the Catholic Church, pitting nuns against bishops. Wednesday, the heads of dozens of religious orders representing 59,000 nuns signed a letter urging Congress to approve the health care bill. Their stance is clashing with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who oppose the bill, due to the belief that it provides for federal funding of abortions. Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby, speaks with host Michel Martin. She represents one of the organizations that signed the letter to Congress

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program we will talk about the painful decision being made by school districts across the country to close schools because of budget shortfalls and declining enrollment. We'll hear how that is playing out in Detroit.

But first, we want to talk about that raging fight over the legislation to overhaul health insurance. As the Congress heads for a final vote, all sides are pulling up the stops to pressure lawmakers one way or the other. Now divisions have surfaced within the influential Roman Catholic Church.

Yesterday, the heads of dozens of religious orders representing more than 50,000 nuns signed a letter pushing Congress to approve the bill. The move follows a similar expression of support from the Catholic Health Association, which represents 1,200 Catholic hospitals. But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes the bill on the grounds that they believe that it continues to allow federal funding to be used to pay for abortions.

We're joined now by Sister Simone Campbell. She is the executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby. Network is the organization that approached the heads of the different orders and asked them to sign the letter. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us, sister.

Sister SIMONE CAMPBELL (Executive Director, Network): Such a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: Let me read a brief passage from the letter for our listeners. The letter says that despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding conscious protections and it will make historic new investments: $250 million in support of pregnant women. This is the real pro-life stance and we, as Catholics, are all for it.

I wanted to ask you: Why do you think that your group and the bishops see this issue so differently? Is this a different weighing of various priorities that they feel that a stronger anti-abortion stance is more important than achieving health care overall or extending health care to people who don't have it? Or do you just see the bill differently, the language differently?

Sister CAMPBELL: Well, I don't understand the bishop's position, but I do know that ours is that this is a new mechanism for providing protection and maybe they're just apprehensive about a new mechanism. But there are clear prohibitions against using federal dollars. Not only are there clear prohibitions, it's the first time that an annual audit will be required to ensure that federal dollars are not being used to fund abortions.

So, from our perspective, it - yes, it's a new mechanism, but it's an effective mechanism, and they've put the protections in place to make sure that it's being followed properly.

MARTIN: Was there any effort made, and forgive me, that I don't understand necessarily the way these kinds of communications work, but was there any effort made by your organization to reach out to the Catholic bishops and to try persuade them of your point of view?

Sister CAMPBELL: Oh, we've been in dialogue all during the health care piece the health care debate. But one thing that I think should be clear is that our letter was started in response to the Catholic Health Association's statement. We thought that they shouldn't stand alone in this and we wanted to be with them because I thought their articulation of the situation was so clear.

So we started this on, well, I wrote it on Sunday and circulated it to the heads of Catholic religious congregations with a return by the end of Tuesday. And then on Monday the bishops came out with their statement. So, this wasn't a response to the bishops, this was a response to the Catholic Health Association.

MARTIN: Is this a difficult decision for you, a difficult place to be to publicly oppose the Catholic bishops?

Sister CAMPBELL: Well, it's sort of the surprising place to be. It's not where we intended to be. But we respond we are the people who work day in, day out with people who don't have health insurance, with people who can't get care, with people who are suffering because of the injustice within our system. And for us, the mandate - what we see as the mandate of Jesus in the gospel is to respond to people in need. And so, we respond to people in need.

It's politically awkward. It's difficult. We're saddened by this. It's not where we we don't look for a fight. We just think that people in need are so important that we've got to respond.

MARTIN: Have you had any reactions so far? There's one piece I've seen on InsideCatholic.com, an article written by Gayle Hudson who says that the dividing lines in the church are all too clear and the effort of women religious Catholic academics, Catholic journalists and Catholics representing the medical profession to pass a health care bill with abortion funding will be a wakeup call for lay Catholics.

He goes on to say that Catholics in the pews are being more and more aware that something has gone wrong in many of our venerable Catholic institutions and religious orders. I understand that that's just one perspective. But what do you make of that?

Sister CAMPBELL: Well, it's interesting. I'm hearing from a lot of people who say something went wrong in the bishop's statement. So I think the Catholic Church is a broad, has a very large coverage. Were a large tent and there is diversity of thought.

But this really isn't so much about a face and morals difference. It's about a political analysis difference where does this or does this not fund abortion? And our perspective is is that it does not. And it promotes life by giving 30 million people in our country access to health care when we know that 45,000 people die every year because they don't have access to health care and to having their needs met. This to me is a life issue.

MARTIN: Sister Simone Campbell is the executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby. She's a member of the Order of the Sisters of Social Service. Sister, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Sister CAMPBELL: Oh, thanks for this opportunity, Michel, I appreciate it.

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