How the health care bill made nuns rad.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 30 2010 1:03 PM

Glory Days

How the health care bill made nuns rad, and why it's not going to last.

(Continued from Page 1)

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. 

Advertisement

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.

Become a fan of  DoubleX on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

iOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 12:02 PM Here It Is: The Flimsiest Campaign Attack Ad of 2014, Which Won’t Stop Running
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
  Life
Outward
Sept. 17 2014 1:59 PM Ask a Homo: Secret Ally Codes 
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 1:26 PM Hey CBS, Rihanna Is Exactly Who I Want to See on My TV Before NFL Games
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 1:01 PM A Rare, Very Unusual Interview With Michael Jackson, Animated
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 12:35 PM IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.