The Gender Conflict in Catholic Church Hierarchy

Women and men of the faith are divided--first on healthcare, then abuse.

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The vote on the healthcare law showed a new gender gap, not between Demo­crats and Republicans but within the Roman Catholic Church. Before the vote, the all-male U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged American Catholics to contact Congress and ask that the bill not include federal funding of abortions, saying politicians should "fix the flaws or vote no." Surprisingly, the organizations representing 59,000 Catholic nuns broke with the bishops and endorsed the legislation. Not since pro-choice Catholic Geraldine Ferraro's nomination in 1984 has there been such a split with the church hierarchy over politics.

Bart Stupak, the Michigan congressman who led the pro-life Democrats on the healthcare bill, was dismissive of the nuns. "With all due respect to the nuns, when I deal or am working on right-to-life issues, we don't call the nuns," he said on MSNBC's Hardball. The bishops' spokesman, Richard Doerflinger, was similarly disdainful. "Like us, they [the nuns] have been very anxious to have healthcare reform for many years. But unlike us, they don't have policy people who work on these pro-life issues day in and day out." He doesn't get it, either.

The fact is, nuns outnumber priests both in the United States and worldwide. They run the 7,000 American Catholic schools, teaching over 2 million children, and they run Catholic community hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes in all 50 states. According to the Catholic Health Association, those institutions had 98 million outpatient visits and 18 million emergency room visits last year alone. The nuns may or may not have "policy people," but when it comes to pro-life work "day in and day out," they've got a lot more street cred than the bishops do.

Not only do nuns see the holes in our healthcare system as frontline caregivers, but many don't have anything close to a "Cadillac" healthcare plan for themselves. According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, some nuns never enrolled in Social Security and so pay full Medicare premiums, which are rising. Many depend on donations to pay their healthcare bills. Sister Simone Campbell, the head of Network, an organi­zation that was founded by 47 nuns in 1971 and now represents 100,000 members, told the New York Times that it was an "utter mystery" how the bishops and nuns could come to such different conclusions. "Some people could be motivated by a political loyalty that's outside of caring for the people who live at the margins of healthcare in society," she said.

Sister Simone sees what so many American Catholic women see, whether they are nuns or lay ministers or wives or moms: the male leadership of the church that's more loyal to a political institution than to patients in Catholic hospitals or uninsured nuns. It's comparable to the hierarchy's institutional loyalty in the face of the pedophile scandal here in the United States eight years ago. The bishops were widely seen as more concerned with secrecy for the priests than they were about protecting the young victims.

Europeans see it, too. A wider split from the hierarchy is spreading through Europe, which is right now where the American Catholic Church was before Cardinal Bernard Law resigned from office in Boston. According to the New York Times, Cardinal Sean Brady of Ireland issued a broad apology last week for his role in protecting a priest who had assaulted approximately 100 children; a written papal apology followed that also encouraged parishioners to pray more. Irish victims have been paid over a billion euros in settlements. Church attendance is collapsing, and very few people are entering Irish seminaries.

But the Law solution—asking Cardinal Brady to resign—may be tough for the pope. The Times reports that in Ger­many, one priest who had been convicted of molesting altar boys was moved time and again into unsuspecting parishes—even after a psychiatrist had warned his presiding bishop about the man: "For God's sake," the doctor was quoted as saying in the 1980s, "he desperately has to be kept away from working with children." Yet that same priest was still in a parish working with altar boys until last week.