Newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

WASHINGTON (CNS) – At least two U.S. bishops have taken actions to indicate their disapproval of the support some women's religious communities and the Catholic Health Association gave to the final version of health care reform legislation.

Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt of Greensburg, Pa., has directed diocesan offices, parishes and the diocesan newspaper not to promote the "vocation awareness program of any religious community" that was a signatory to a letter urging members of the House of Representatives to pass the health reform bill.

In Providence, R.I., Bishop Thomas J. Tobin asked the Catholic Health Association to remove the diocesan-sponsored St. Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island from its membership rolls, saying that CHA leadership had "misled the public and caused serious scandal" by supporting health reform legislation that the bishops opposed.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was against the measure because its provisions on abortion funding and conscience protections were morally unacceptable.

When the bill passed, the bishops reiterated their decades-long support for providing access to health care for all but expressed regret that health care reform came with the possibility of expanded abortion funding and urged vigilance that an executive order by President Barack Obama would, as promised, ensure no federal funds will be spent on abortion.

Some Catholic groups reacted with enthusiasm to the passage of health reform and President Obama's executive order, and others said the order would have no effect on abortion funding.

In Greensburg, Bishop Brandt's directive had its most immediate effect on the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, Pa., who had asked parishes in the diocese to provide promotional support such as bulletin notices for a vocations awareness program called "Explore," scheduled for April 25.

Diocesan spokesman Jerry Zufelt said the bishop is in dialogue with a second order, the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, based in Greensburg, whose president was a signatory to the same letter. He said Bishop Brandt is open to dialogue with the Sisters of St. Joseph.

In the days leading up to the March 21 House votes on health care reform, more than four dozen leaders of women's religious orders signed a letter urging members of Congress to "cast a life-affirming 'yes' vote" and denying "false claims" that the legislation would expand federal funding of abortion. The letter campaign was organized by the national Catholic social justice lobby Network.

Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is CHA president and CEO, also expressed public support for the legislation and said she was convinced it would not fund abortions. She was one of 20 people to receive ceremonial pens used by President Barack Obama to sign the health reform bill into law.

Another group of nuns belonging to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious issued a separate statement saying that the position on health care reform and abortion articulated by the U.S. bishops is "the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church" and should be followed.

In a statement issued late April 15, the Diocese of Greensburg said Bishop Brandt "has the right to disapprove a request from a religious community that wants to host a recruitment event when that community has taken a public stance in opposition to the church's teaching on human life."

"Furthermore, an environment of dissent from and public opposition to the positions of the U.S. Catholic bishops does not provide an appropriate seedbed for vocations," the statement added.

Sister Mary Pellegrino, congregational moderator for the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, which is in the Pittsburgh Diocese, said the community was "deeply saddened" by the bishop's decision and had asked diocesan officials to consider reversing it.

"We continue to pray that the continued contentiousness and divisiveness among people of different faiths and political persuasions subside, and that health care reform will work to respect and protect human life and dignity and provide access to health care for the most poor and vulnerable of God's people," she added.

Father Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Diocese, told the Post-Gazette daily newspaper Bishop David A. Zubik had taken no action but intends "to have a pastoral conversation with those who signed the statement ... to find out why they signed."

Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service who is executive director of Network, also said she was sad about Bishop Brandt's decision but still believed the health reform legislation will not expand abortion funding.

"Because Network has interpreted health care policy and legislation for decades, we felt confident in our analysis of the bill's language," she said in an April 15 statement. "We have never disagreed about the moral question of abortion or federal funding of abortion. To us, extending health care to tens of millions of people who lack access continues to be a strongly pro-life position."

Regarding the CHA membership of the Providence health system, Fred Caesar, CHA's senior director of public affairs, told Catholic News Service in an e-mail April 16 that "the bishop is the sponsor so he has the right to ask for a withdrawal of membership and we immediately granted his request."

He said there was another hospital that has said it will not renew its membership, but he did not name it, saying it was up to the hospital to indentify itself.

A U.S. archbishop serving at the Vatican also criticized CHA and the nuns who supported passage of the health reform bill in comments reported at the Institute on Religious Life's national meeting April 9 in Mundelein, Ill.

According to a partial transcript published online by the American Papist blog, Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, head of the Vatican's supreme court and former archbishop of St. Louis, said: "Who could imagine that consecrated religious would openly, and in defiance of the bishops as successors of the apostles, publicly endorse legislation containing provisions which violated the natural moral law in its most fundamental tenets – the safeguarding and promoting of innocence and defenseless life, and fail to safeguard the demands of the free exercise of conscience for health care workers?"

He called it "an absurdity of the most tragic kind to have consecrated religious knowingly and obstinately acting against the moral law."

Archbishop Burke also criticized religious congregations that "would openly organize to resist and attempt to frustrate an apostolic visitation, that is, a visit to their congregations carried out under the authority of the vicar of Christ on earth, to whom all religious are bound by the strongest bonds of loyalty and obedience."

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