Healthcare nunsense

I have a friend who has been on the health care beat for her paper for years. I saw her last week at a party and she looked a bit weary. I gave her my own views on the matter and she replied, in all sincerity, "I just want it to be over." It is very difficult to be a journalist covering this thing. It's hardly the most transparent thing to have been debated in Congress, it has about a million moving parts, special interests are fighting for last-minute inclusions or exclusions, and the legislative machinations are confusing for all but the most nerdy of parliamentarians. So I sympathize with the difficulties that reporters are having. This can't be easy. Still, there was a pretty major flub on how one religious angle was covered. Here's how Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane of the Washington Post wrote it:

Meanwhile, in an unusual schism within the Catholic Church over abortion, a consortium of 59,000 nuns waded into the debate, declaring their support for the legislation despite the insistence of the nation's bishops and antiabortion groups that it would open the door to federal funding of abortion.

"Despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions," the group said in a letter signed by leaders of dozens of religious orders. "It will uphold longstanding conscience protections and it will make historic new investments . . . in support of pregnant women. This is the real pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it."

This is wrong in many ways. For one thing, the disagreement is nowhere near unusual. Do you remember all the hand-wringing last year when it was revealed that the Vatican had initiated a "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (one of the signatories to the letter was the president of that network) over concerns that many sisters had rejected basic church doctrine? TMatt wrote a column last year with an anecdote about a national LCWR conference a couple of years ago where a Dominican sister gave a speech declaring that some women religious orders were "moving beyond the church, even beyond Jesus."

But let's start with the claim that 59,000 nuns waded into the debate. There are roughly 59,000 nuns in the entire country. Does the Washington Post actually believe that 100 percent of them disagree with their bishops and agree with pro-choice claims? Really? Admittedly, part of the problem is that the media have trouble understanding when to use the word "sisters" and when to use the word "nuns." But it's even worse than that.

The actual letter was signed by individuals who have various positions of influence with just over 50 different communities. The fitting comparison would be if I managed to get a birthday card signed by an elected official in 8 states, one of whom was the head of the National Governor's Association, and then I claimed that 300 million Americans had decided to wish me a Happy Birthday. Not quite.

But the media fell for it hook, line and sinker. The letter in question came out from Network, a group that describes itself as follows:

NETWORK is a progressive voice within the Catholic community that has been influencing Congress in favor of peace and justice for more than 30 years.

Some readers here like to note how easily the mainstream media use "conservative" to describe, well, conservative groups but have such difficulty describing liberal groups as "liberal." Precisely none of the stories I read about this political group managed to describe the group's political position. In the Post's story, the words "liberal" and "progressive" appeared not at all.

And yet if you look Network's web site, you'll see that they list 10 action areas that they focus on. While abortion literally doesn't even make the list, universal health care does. Again, this might have been something to include in a story claiming -- what was it -- an "unusual schism over abortion." Newsweek's Katie Connolly wrote that this was "a major break" with bishops. The AP called it "an unusual public break" with bishops. Again, as all those stories about the Vatican investigation last year should remind us, we've seen some pretty regular breaks with bishops among the nuns?

Another AP story ("rare public break") quoted the leader of Network:

"This is politics; this isn't a question of faith and morals," said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a national Catholic social activism lobby.

This is the same Simone Campbell who, according to a write-up of her meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (yes, you read that right!), was "most touched by his comments about poverty".

This group has a legacy and unabashed commitment of working for some very liberal causes. The conservative describes Network as "Essentially a radical feminist interest group, Network was founded by Carol Couston, O.P. and a group of 47 disenchanted nuns. While the group refuses to take a public stand on abortion, it is heavily invested in left-wing politics, judges issues through the lens of 'women's experience,' and promotes eco-feminism and socialism/Marxism." Do you think the folks at were surprised by the letter released by Network? My guess is no. Whether or not you agree that Network is Marxist or merely progressive, though, their endorsement of the current state of legislation should not have surprised the media, much less been spun as a rare break.

But here's a "break" I would like explained. Back in December, the New York Times reported that the Catholic Health Association was breaking with the bishops over the Senate bill. That story produced the strongest of reactions from Sister Carol Keehan, who runs the association:

"There is not a shred of disagreement between CHA and the bishops," Sister Carol said. "We believe there is a great possibility and probability that in conference committee we can work toward a solution that will prevent federal funding of abortion."

But on Monday -- with precisely no changes made or planned on with regard to the abortion language in that bill -- Sister Carol Keehan did a complete 180. Michelle Boorstein at the Post wrote it up but never explained how it was that Keehan went from asserting "not a shred of disagreement" between her organization and the bishops (who couldn't oppose the abortion provisions in stronger terms) to openly supporting it this week. This even though the whole angle of the story is growing dissent among Catholics on health care legislation.

I'm sure there's a reason, but it's not even explored. What happened? The legislation didn't change. So what changed Keehan's mind? I know that CHA was heavily invested in passing legislation -- having spent over $1 million last year to make it happen -- and that they stand to gain quite a bit financially from its passage. But neither the lobbying nor the reason for the lobbying are even mentioned. Just the dissent from the bishops.

Boorstein's late Thursday article, incidentally, also confused the issue of whether the signatories to that letter represent 59,000 nuns. It's even worse to make that mistake the day after Network's press release was issued. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also pointed out accounting problems with Network's claim to represent 59,000 nuns:

"The letter had 55 signatories, some individuals, some groups of three to five persons. One endorser signed twice," [Sister Mary Ann Walsh] noted. "There are 793 religious communities in the United States. The math is clear. Network is far off the mark."

In fact, there are only 59,000 women in Catholic religious orders in the United States, meaning the Network letter could never have represented all, or even most, of them.

Instead of quoting Walsh, however, Boorstein merely noted that she had "weighed in" on the matter. But we don't learn what she said or the facts or figures she cited.

And it is perhaps worth noting that while individual people of varying religious opinions have a wide variety of views on the matter, the media should not confuse the issue of who has authority to speak for the church on this matter. Even the Vatican newspaper had weighed in on whether the 50 signatories represented anything authoritative in the church (Answer: No).

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