Not surprisingly, Keehan's dealmaking has made her a villain in some conservative Catholic circles. She butted heads in the press with Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a nun who does media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, over the health care bill's abortion language. We don't know who the silent majority of nuns sided with, but Frances Kissling, the former head of Catholics for Choice, hazarded a guess that perhaps only 5,000 or 10,000 of the 59,000 nuns represented in the letter might fully, personally want to throw their weight behind it. Another group of conservative nuns circulated their own letter supporting the bishops.
The letter in favor of health care reform isn't the boldest stance American nuns have taken. In 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro was running for vice president, 27 members of religious orders—nearly all nuns—took out an ad in the New York Times arguing for a legitimate difference of opinion among committed Catholics on the question of abortion. The letter said that "a large number of theologians" think that "abortion can sometimes be a moral choice." That crucial word legitimate angered the Vatican, and under duress, 25 of the signers dialed back their statements. But two nuns, who ran a homeless shelter in West Virginia refused to do so and stated explicitly that they believed a woman had a right to an abortion. After years of controversy, in 1988 both resigned—but, meaningfully, of their own volition. More recently, in November 2009, Sister Donna Quinn was asked by her order to stop volunteering as an abortion clinic escort. She did, but she hasn't given up her public pro-choice position.
The Vatican has already signaled its broader disapproval with how some nuns have updated their mission for modernity. Last summer, seemingly out of nowhere, the Vatican launched an investigation into American nuns, targeting only active, not contemplative, nuns. The church is looking into "how well they are 'living in fidelity' " with "the church's guidelines for religious life." The subtext was that the Vatican disapproved with how some nuns have updated their mission for modernity.
The nuns must see the constraints. Despite the dramatic optics of their opposition to the bishops on the question of health care, they've been quite careful to note that their disagreement isn't doctrinal; it's about how to interpret the political language of the bill, not a move away from a pro-life stance. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organizing body composed of higher-ups from the various orders and representing most American nuns, has in fact tended to be theologically cautious on the official record, never mind the Vatican's apparent suspicions of their various actions. One nun, who works on ecumenical outreach, said of the letter that it wasn't a break with the bishops so much as an example of "speaking in a different tongue." Even in defiance, the nuns are careful not to sound that way.
Still, the nuns' letter cracked open a window for lawmakers, and other pro-life Catholic progressives, at a key historical moment. Church doctrine famously doesn't leave much wiggle room on contraception, which causes problems for trying to reduce the number of abortions. "I can't figure out for the life of me how to stop pregnancies without contraception. Don't be mad at me for wanting to solve the problem," said Tim Ryan, the Catholic Ohio congressman who was booted out of Democrats for Life when he sponsored a bill that supported contraception. This time, with health care for 32 million people at stake, here were the nuns with a solution for how to allow abortion to take a back seat to other moral considerations. The nuns came to the rescue just in time for members of Congress like Ohio Rep. Charlie Wilson and Michigan Rep. Dale Kildee, pro-life Catholics, who reversed themselves and voted for the bill. Generations of Catholics, after all, have been schooled by nuns. The health care lesson the sisters taught sets a precedent, even if the activists among them become a rare species.