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.

Nun.
Nuns helped bring pro-life Dems over in support of health care reform, but are younger nuns less political?

The Catholic Church is having a moment. The information emerging almost daily about the pope's involvement in covering up sexual abuse by priests comes on top of the failed recent stonewalling of health care reform by U.S bishops over abortion. None of this has endeared the church to the American left. Nuns, though, have been an exception. In the run-up to passage of the health care bill, representatives of the nearly 60,000 U.S. nuns signed a letter in support of the health care bill, contra the bishops, because, they wrote, supporting better health care is "the real pro-life stance." From there, the dominoes toppled fast—Bart Stupak, the Catholic pro-life Democrat who'd refused to vote in favor of the bill because of the abortion question, initially dismissed the nuns' letter but then backed down and settled for an executive order on abortion of questionable import and scope. And the bill passed.

Had the nuns helped make this possible? Pro-choice bloggers are giving them "serious props." Maureen Dowd, the id of establishment Washington (not to mention former Catholic schoolgirls of a certain stripe), swooned for their "bravura decision," which she saw as instrumental in "giving Democrats cover" morally. She even dizzily suggested that the church should redeem itself by appointing a "nope"—nun as pope. For liberal Catholics disenchanted with the church, the nuns' letter looks like a welcome feminist upswell from within one of the world's most patriarchal organizations. Nuns are suddenly sort of rad, even if the full picture is also more complicated.

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Nuns are quite literally a dying breed. Especially in America, where the median age of sisters has been inching up toward the 70s, and the number of nuns plummeted from about 180,000 in 1965 to fewer than 60,000 in 2009. This is a far sharper drop than the number of priests. When I wrote a story a few years ago for my college newspaper about young men who wanted to enter the priesthood, I intended to include aspiring nuns, but couldn't find a single one at a Jesuit school with a student body that was half-Catholic. (My most devout friend once told me she used to pray daily that God wouldn't call her.) The women's movement has played a role in the declining appeal of the habit.  Nowadays, a Catholic woman can do the same work as a layperson she would do as a nun (and taking the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience doesn't grant her the privilege of celebrating mass, of course). In a 2002 article in the Atlantic, author Mary Gordon asked a nun who'd taught her in high school what, exactly nuns could do that other women could not. Her reply: "NOTHING. If anything, there are more strictures on nuns than laywomen."

The nuns' health care letter might suggest that the ones who are left are increasingly left-leaning. That's probably true of the older leadership. The women now heading their orders, as well as Catholic schools and hospitals, were formed in the crucible of Vatican II as the church shifted its emphasis toward engagement with the modern world.  Over the past half-century or so, many American nuns have certainly become less cloistered. They have shed their habits in daily life and stuck with their given names rather than calling themselves, say, Sister St. Thaddeus. Some work as academics or social workers. While earlier generations romanticized the life of a sheltered bride of Christ, Mother Teresa has become these nuns' ideal.

But that's not as true of the shrinking pool of women who are becoming nuns now.  Like their priestly male counterparts, the women who now take vows tend to be far more conservative than those who entered a generation or two ago, say clergy who shepherd young people through the process of discernment (figuring out whether you are called to a religious vocation). Becoming a nun or a priest means swimming harder and harder against the cultural tides. The church itself is doubling down on traditionalism, too, attracting novices who share those values. Today, contemplative nuns—those who devote themselves to a cloistered life of prayer—are younger on average than the active nuns who work in schools and hospitals and among the poor. This suggests that the women signing up for the religious life nowadays are more interested in connecting with heaven than earth.

This could mean that the older generation of progressive leaders gives way to a quite different group. But for now, the progressives are in power, and they harnessed in favor of the health care bill the mystique, a gravity, and accordance of respect that taking the veil still commands. If 60,000 deeply religious Catholic women had signed that same letter in favor of health care reform, the act of defiance just wouldn't have resonated in the same way.

Who are the nuns who spearheaded the letter on health care and abortion? Sister Simone Campbell, a lawyer who heads the social justice advocacy organization Network, drafted and circulated the letter. It was meant to echo a similar one submitted to Congress days earlier by the Catholic Health Association, a lobbying group for Catholic Hospitals. The CHA is led by Sister Carol Keehan, a member of the Daughters of Charity who, in 2007, was the first woman to top Modern Health's list of powerful people in health care. She represents the incredibly accomplished, highly educated nuns whom we've come to think of as cool. President Obama apparently thinks so, too—he gave her one of the 22 pens he used to sign the bill. Keehan, 65, brokered an early, instrumental deal for the nation's hospitals, Catholic and not, to forgo billions of dollars of future Medicare and Medicaid payments. She is pro-life, but she also said early on that health care shouldn't be about the abortion debate and that the Senate bill, without the Stupak amendment, was adequate. For nuns like Keehan, who run hospitals and schools and homeless shelters and see the devastating impact of the systemic breakdown every day, arguments   like this one about how improving health care can reduce abortion rates also probably have an appealing logic.

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.

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Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.