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Memo to Bart Stupak: Listen to the Sisters

This week, Catholic nuns sent a letter to Washington leaders urging them to vote for the health care reform bill. When it comes to being pro-life, you best listen to the ladies.
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This week, sixty leaders of Catholic religious orders representing 59,000 nuns sent a letter to Washington leaders urging them to vote for the health care reform bill. Unlike many of the Catholic bishops, who have worked against the current bill on the basis of abortion policy, the sisters argued the pending bill represented a "real pro-life stance" and urged Catholic members of Congress to pass the legislation. In layperson's language, this is the Nuns vs. the Bishops -- a kind of internecine Catholic health care smack down.

The sisters are mad at the bishops because the bishops have been interfering with their communities of late. But they are also irked with Congressman Bart Stupak (D-Mich), who famously penned the abortion provision in the House version of the bill and who has used health care reform as a way of restricting women's access to abortion. The nuns essentially accused Stupak of lying (but ever-so-politely) as well as the bishops, who, apparently encouraged Stupak to block the bill. Stupak, a Catholic, took it personally and responded to the sisters by saying, "When I'm drafting right to life language, I don't call up the nuns." Instead, he confessed to consulting with "leading bishops, Focus on the Family, and the National Right to Life Committee."

Although Rep. Stupak is Catholic, he graduated from a public school in Michigan. Maybe that's why he doesn't know much about nuns -- that for centuries the sisters have been the rebellious, prophetic, charitable heart of the Catholic Church (not to mention that they are pretty tough with rulers, too).

In Sisters-in-Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia, historian Jo Ann Kay McNamara confesses that she struggled to find a suitable title for her book finally settling on "sisters-in-arms" because "our sisters have been united in a long war not only against the enemies of their religion but also against misogynist elements within that religion that have mocked and constrained their efforts." McNamara's magisterial history -- 750 pages long -- traces the story of Catholic women who served the weak, the sick, the poor, outcasts, widows and orphans with selfless devotion, prayer, theological sophistication, and, very often, mystical insight. Catholic sisters so effectively imitated Jesus that they gained great spiritual power with lay Christians, and many an abbess was treated as a "spiritual queen" in local towns and villages. The bishops found this so threatening that they often kept the convents impoverished and without heat, isolated the women from society, forbade them the sacraments, burned their books, outlawed their speaking, and locked sisters in their own buildings.

Throughout history, sisters have stood up and corrected a corrupt church. The medieval abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) preached all over Germany against the religious authorities who were given over to "despair, greed, and worldly sadness," saying that the priests and bishops had betrayed Jesus through "simony, fornication, oppression, insubordination, and negligence." She said they were "enveloped in the blackness of acrid smoke because of their habitually foul behavior." She cried out for a church that acted justly toward the poor and oppressed. For her trouble, the local bishop withheld the Mass from her and her sisters. A story all-too-typical in church history.

Rep. Stupak and Catholic members of Congress, I have one question for you: Whom do you trust to speak for the Catholic faith? The bishops who covered up the sex scandal in the church, ignoring the cries of victims, while rewarding those with "habitually foul behavior" with ever-bigger parishes and positions in the hierarchy? Or the sisters -- the women who nursed your sick grandparents, who taught your children to read, cooked meals for hungry people, who started schools on the prairies and established hospitals in far-away jungles? When it comes to being pro-life, you best listen to the ladies.

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