The Nuns’ Chutzpah

This post has been updated.

This week the Catholic Hospital Association and the Leadership Council of Women Religious, an organization of presidents of communities of nuns, thumbed their noses at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by refusing to buy the bishops’ false claims that the Senate health care bill requires taxpayers to fund abortions. These organizations, in a remarkable move against the church hierarchy, said they were supporting the health care reform bill because it adquately prevented federal funding for abortion and served their social justice goals of providing needed health insurance to 30 million uninsured.

The bishops, not unexpectedly, were miffed. The nuns’ organizations, they insisted, don’t represent all nuns. (The bishops don’t represent all Catholics either.) They don’t understand, the bishops claimed, that a provision in the bill creates funding for community health centers, through which abortion funding can flow. (Mother Jones‘ Nick Baumann skillfully explains why this isn’t the case, but how Democrats could have fended off this argument from the bishops with one additional sentence in the bill.)

There’s a power struggle going on between the Vatican and the nuns, as Mary Hunt reported in these pages in August, manifested by the Vatican dispatching investigators to nuns’ orders for supposed misconduct, even while ignoring the pedophilia scandals that rage across the globe. That’s the broader context in which this little health care battle is being waged. The nuns’ break with the bishops on health care is, Hunt, the co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, told me this morning, “a small step in the right right direction.” That the “nuns would have the chutzpah in the midst of that to go against the bishops is a good thing,” Hunt added. The nuns — despite the bishops’ claims — “represent wider berth of committed Catholics” than the bishops do.

Yet Bart Stupak insists he doesn’t listen to the nuns, a statement which says it all about Stupak’s own brand of chutzpah.

UPDATE at 1:15 PT: Speaking of chutzpah, I just got off a call sponsored by the Family Research Council, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Right to Life Committee. (While the nuns, Catholics United, and other moderate Catholics used to be the bishops’ allies here, it appears now its only allies are from the religious right.) Richard Doerflinger, a spokesperson for the USCCB, accused the nuns and other pro-life Catholics who are supporting the Senate bill of not really understanding policy, as if the USCCB has a special policy oracle that none of them have access to.

As news reports are suggesting that the House leadership may be working out a deal with Stupak to promise an abortion “fix” down the road, it’s clear that the USCCB and its FRC and NRLC allies are having none of that. They were all clear they have additional issues with the bill beyond the abortion question, and a mere promise to fix it later won’t appease those concerns (including what they claim are insufficient conscience protections).

In a fascinating twist, a representative of Randall Terry’s organization asked whether any of the organizations on the call would support “tax resistance” to the bill, i.e., a refusal to pay taxes in protest of it. They all said that was not on the horizon (despite such a thing being suggested, perhaps, in the Manhattan Declaration), but that, according to FRC’s Tony Perkins, the health care reform bill could be subject to a legal challenge, something conservatives have been talking about for a while.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email