Nuns Clash With Bishops Over Health Bill Support

While a large number of nuns organizations have vocally supported the health care bill, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops strongly opposes the it, arguing that it provides federal funding for abortions. Michael Sean Winters, who writes a daily political blog for America, the largest-circulation Catholic weekly magazine, sheds light on the clash.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We wanted additional perspective so we've called on Michael Sean Winters. He writes a daily political blog for the largest circulation Catholic weekly magazine America. He's a contributor to the National Catholic Reporter. He's also with us often to talk about such matters. Michael, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mr. MICHAEL SEAN WINTERS (Contributor, America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter): Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So, of course, you cover the politics of the Catholic Church and how these issues play out in the public sphere. Is this a big deal? How unusual is it for the nuns and the bishops to take opposite sides of such a big issue?

Mr. WINTERS: Well, you know, I would just caution to say I think they're on the same side when it comes to abortion. No one is a pro-abortion actor in this debate in the Catholic Church. The issue is, as sister just said, how you politically address abortion in this language, in this legislative language.

And, you know, the bishops have a role they're primarily moral teachers. And one of the things you learn in moral theology is it does kind of tend to this worst case scenario analysis. And I think that may be why they've raised some red flags that the sisters who actually run the hospitals who deal with the poor, who deal with pregnant women facing a crisis pregnancy, they may see that those red flags really are not something to be alarmed about.

MARTIN: I read earlier from a piece by a writer on InsideCatholic.com. I want to read a bit from something you wrote. You wrote: I hope the bishops will recognize that pro-life Catholics can, in good conscience, disagree about the different aspects of the bill, even if they feel compelled to oppose it. There are sufficient reasons on all sides to not draw any lines in the sand or to turn this vote into a litmus test of Catholic orthodoxy. It does sound like some people are taking it that way. Why do you think they shouldn't?

Mr. WINTERS: Well, you know, again, the issue is not the morality of abortion and a Catholic is obligated to defer to bishops on issues of faith and morals. The issue is the legislative language in this bill. And I just don't think and, actually, if you look at the bishop's statement, it really relies on a prediction of how market forces will respond to this bill.

Well, I just don't think that's where successors or the apostles should stake their (unintelligible). You know, I don't know what the insurance companies are going to do. And in fact, no one does. I mean, you know, now, when we lobby on legislation, we try to make sure things will go one way rather than the other, but there's certainly room for some honest disagreement here without getting nasty about it.

Unfortunately, some bishops have been attacking the Catholic Health Association, and Sister Carol personally. There's no room for that. That's outrageous.

MARTIN: Is it their position that bishops are simply reading the bill wrong?

Mr. WINTERS: I think so, and reading it with a bias that comes partly, as I just spoke of, from that kind of worst case scenario analysis that you get out of moral theology and that attunes you to, but also that there are some influences. There has been alarmism about the Obama administration. They were very, you know, all in a tizzy about him going to Notre Dame. They started the Obama administration by worrying about the Freedom of Choice Act. Remember there was a post guard campaign about that. It's still never been introduced.

I mean, so, you know, they cried wolf a couple times, and they clearly viewed this administration with apprehension. And it's hard not to believe that some of that has carried over to their analysis of the bill.

MARTIN: You're saying that in fact there's sort of a cultural or organic suspicion of the Obama administration under for some people, that they just believe that the bill might actually say what its supporters say that it says.

Mr. WINTERS: Exactly. And I think that has just colored their judgment in their assessment of the bill.

MARTIN: Where do you think this goes from here? Will there be repercussions for the sisters who and for the Catholic Health Association who went forward in this way? I mean, as a person who covers the hierarchy of the church. The impression some I think that some people were saying that the nuns simply were out of line hierarchically, but the bishops are the ultimate authority here and they should have deferred to their judgment even if they don't agree with it.

Mr. WINTERS: That's a great misunderstanding of how the Catholic Church works. You know, most of these hospitals in question have independent boards and all of that. Each bishop, though, is really, you know, king in his own realm. And so there might in certain places - Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas - where they have attacked Sister Carol, there could be some local repercussions.

I think at the national level, you know, people who know Sister Carol, they know she knows more about health care than any other 10 people, including any 10 bishops. She has a great working relationship with the president of the conference, Cardinal George from Chicago. His statement, certainly, was very respectful of Sister Carol's division acknowledged the disagreement, but there was no nastiness. And that's my hope is that there's no nastiness.

MARTIN: And finally, Michael Sean, the Vatican sometimes does weigh in on matters of legislative importance around the world. Do you think it's conceivable that we'll hear from the pope on this?

Mr. WINTERS: I'd be surprised. As you may know, they are pretty preoccupied there with the sex abuse scandal that's melting down in Europe, both in Ireland and in Germany. So I would be surprised. You may see something (unintelligible) over something. But I would be surprised. And there's a timeline here. The Vatican moves very slowly. The vote is going to be this weekend. I don't think you'll see anything from the Holy Father on this.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, then, what else what do you think we might see going forward? We have about a minute left. What do you think? Do you think there will be repercussions going forward one way or the other in sort of changing the way this issue was discussed in the public sphere?

Mr. WINTERS: Unfortunately, there's a group in the Catholic Church that always wants to fight a culture war. And unfortunately, that includes certain bishops. And my worry is after it passes, there will be recriminations. There will be charges of betrayal and you (unintelligible) and then this kind of stuff. And I think that's a great disservice.

Cardinal George's first job is to keep the bishops together. And I think that becomes increasingly hard as certain bishops follow these kind of right wing talking points that really are divisive, they're nasty. They're not just strident, they're really disingenuous and biased in a way that has no place in the church. We don't need the kind of zero sum game analysis of politics in the life of the church.

MARTIN: That was Michael Sean Winters. He writes for the Catholic magazine America and the National Catholic Reporter. He's the author of a number of books and he was here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. WINTERS: Great to be here.

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