On March 21, in a rare Sunday vote, the US Congress revolutionized America’s health care system. Without a single Republican vote, Democrats fulfilled President Barack Obama’s promise to “fundamentally transform” America. Because the legislation did not explicitly forbid taxpayer funding of abortion, and because it constituted what Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) aptly described as the greatest legislative expansion of abortion in American history, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) said the bill “must be opposed.”
And yet, even before the now-infamous last-minute deal between President Obama and “pro-life” Democrats, a group of nuns sent Congress a letter urging passage of the bill. In doing so, the nuns joined hands with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in opposing the bishops, and overnight became darlings of a militantly secular media that usually insists on banishment of faith from politics.
The group that organized the nuns is called Network, an organization founded in Washington, DC in 1971. A self-described “progressive voice within the Catholic community that has been influencing Congress in favor of peace and justice for more than 30 years,” the group’s slogan reads, “Network: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby.”
Network claims to represent a “vast constituency” of more than 100,000 people. It boasts, “When our national office puts out the word that Congress needs to hear from our members on critical legislation, our members respond by calling, writing, emailing, or visiting their senators and representatives, and by mobilizing others to take action.” Through this “lobbying and legislative advocacy,” Network states at its website, www.networklobby. org, “we strive to close the gap between rich and poor and to dismantle policies rooted in racism, greed, and violence.” The organization organizes and educates for “economic and social transformation.”
The sisters are all about “social justice,” though they aren’t exactly outspoken about the injustice done to the unborn. There is virtually nothing on the sisters’ website about abortion. The unborn are not found in the mission statement or among the 10-point “Issues on Network’s agenda,” an otherwise wide ranging program veering from “fair and just trade” to “fair and just taxation,” from “wage equity” to “food security,” from immigration to Iraq, from the elderly to health care. Clicking the tabs atop the Network’s website, one finds material on “civic engagement,” “voter education,” “immigration workshops,” “ecological justice,” “prayer for justice”—but nothing on the abortion holocaust.
In writing this article, I went to the “Search the NETWORK” function on the group’s website. When I typed “abortion,” the website offered four documents—all statements on the abortion elements in the health care bill. While other Catholic Church teachings are prominently promoted on the website, I came up with nothing on searches for words like “Evangelium Vitae” and “Humanae Vitae.”
I point this out because it not only helps explain the sisters’ subsequent position on Obamacare, but could have been used to predict it.
As the Sunday vote on health care approached, the sisters’ enthusiasm poured into action, as they drummed up 50-plus signatures in a letter to Congress. “Dear Members of Congress,” their March 17 letter began, “We write to urge you to cast a lifeaffirming ‘yes’ vote when the Senate health care bill comes to the floor of the House for a vote.”
But how could the nuns support a pro-abortion bill? “From our reading of the bill,” Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, told the media, “there isn’t any federal funding of abortion.” Indeed, she said, “We agree that there shouldn’t be any federal funding of abortion.”
The sisters judged their support of the bill not anti-life but pro-life. “For us,” explained Campbell, “tens of thousands of people are dying each year because they don’t have access to health care, so that is a life issue.”
A controversial aspect of Network’s and Campbell’s statements were the numbers, which at times exceeded even the most hyperbolic estimates of the most radical Democrats, who claimed upwards of 30-40 million uninsured Americans (more modest estimates were 10-20 million). “I speak for the 50 million people in the United States that don’t have access,” proclaimed Campbell in a March 19 interview with Fox News, “and the 45,000 people that die every year because they can’t get health care.” In the March 17 letter, Network had referenced “over 30 million uninsured Americans.”
Another controversy was the exact number of nuns the signatories represented. Here, the figures were wildly exaggerated. The Network itself bears responsibility, claiming that the nuns who signed the letter represented not a list of some 50-plus sisters but 59,000. “We represent 59,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States,” declared the March 17 letter.
Among those not impressed with the Network’s creative math was the USCCB. “A recent letter from Network, a social justice lobby of sisters, grossly overstated whom they represent in a letter to Congress that was also released to media,” stated Sister Mary Ann Walsh, the USCCB’s director of media relations. “Network’s letter, about health care reform, was signed by a few dozen people, and despite what Network said, they do not come anywhere near representing 59,000 American sisters.” Walsh added: “The letter had 55 signatories, some individuals, some groups of three to five persons. One endorser signed twice. There are 793 religious communities in the United States. The math is clear. Network is far off the mark.”
But the truth mattered little. Liberals who supported the health care bill, from the Speaker of the House’s office to newspaper editorial offices, cheered on the nuns.
On March 19, Speaker Pelosi called a press conference. First, she invoked the intercession of St. Joseph on behalf of the bill, mistakenly informing the press that it was the “feast day of St. Joseph the Worker” when it was the Solemnity of St. Joseph (the feast devoted to St. Joseph the Worker is on May 1). No matter; Speaker Pelosi’s priority was not to guard the unborn child (the principal duty of St. Joseph) but to assist “30 million American workers.”
To that end, the Speaker invoked the added intercession of the nuns at Network, thanking them for their letter to Congress. A product of Catholic education, Pelosi thrilled that “two sisters that taught me…were on the list” of signatories.
Pelosi was not the only grateful Catholic Democrat in Congress. Several sources, from Congressman Chris Smith to LifeNews, contend that the letter from the nuns was influential in moving some pro-life Democrats toward favoring the bill. That was especially true once the press got the letter.
With the Network’s letter in hand, the secular media experienced a Saullike conversion, rushing the nuns before TV cameras and splashing their story on front pages. From CNN to NPR, the mainstream media lauded the nuns for their courage, their wisdom, their non-partisanship, their integration of faith into public life, and, most important, for supporting Barack Obama’s bill.
To the press, it was not only a new day for faith in the public square, but also a crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. With the salvo from the sisters, it seemed there was a schism, pitting the old men in the Vatican against the folks in the pews in the Heartland. “Nuns’ support for healthcare bill shows church split,” shouted the headline in a Los Angeles Times article carried around the country. The Times is one of America’s most relentlessly pro-abortion secular newspapers; now, it seemed to rethink the value of faith in politics. “Their numbers and influence may be declining,” declared the breathless lead in the Times article, with a wink, “but American nuns demonstrated Wednesday what generations of schoolchildren already knew: They are a force to be reckoned with.”
Be not afraid, was the Times’ not-soconcealed exhortation to the sisters: “By sending a letter to Congress in support of the Senate health care bill, a wide coalition of nuns took sides against not only the Republican minority but against their own church hierarchy, as represented by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposes the bill.” The Times reported that the letter “contributed to the momentum in favor of the legislation.”
And how could it not? As the Times reported, “The letter was signed by the leaders of more than 50 Catholic women’s orders and organizations, including the Leadership Conference for Women Religious, which says it represents more than 90 percent of the 59,000 American Catholic nuns.”
With that, the Times piece went viral. The pro-choice press had its headline: 59,000 nuns support Obama health care reform!
It was left to pro-life websites and groups to issue corrections that received nowhere near similar levels of press coverage.
The entire episode prompts some uncomfortable and unclear questions: Did the nuns actually believe the bill would not include abortion funding, even as their bishops and every major pro-life group said it would? If so, who did they listen to? Who misled them? How could these educated women be so easily duped?
This is a charitable interpretation, one that gives the sisters the benefit of the doubt. It assumes they would never wittingly succumb to a bill that constituted the most expansive legislative thrust on behalf of abortion policy in American history.
They certainly did not listen to Catholic congressmen from the Republican side, like Chris Smith or Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Make no mistake,” noted Boehner, “a ‘yes’ vote on the Democrats’ health care bill is a vote for taxpayer-funded abortions.”
Instead, the nuns hitched themselves to Catholic members of Congress who just happen to possess 0 percent rankings from National Right to Life and 100 percent rankings from the National Abortion Rights Action League. The nuns put their faith in these “social justice” abortion advocates rather than their own bishops.
Of course, it seems hard to believe the sisters could be that naïve. Another possibility is that the sisters are so consumed with their notions of “social justice”—a form reflexively inclined to the federal collective—even at the expense of significant interest in the sanctity and dignity of human life, that they jettisoned the unborn in favor of Big Brother. In the process, the child in the womb got gobbled up by Leviathan.
Either way, the sisters got what they urged Congress to do. They asked and they received.