Mary Ann Sorrentino's 2 Cents Worth

Opinions, Observations and Musings

Mary Ann Sorrentino

Mary Ann Sorrentino
RI or FL depending on season, USA
June 19
Mary Ann is a columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel, the Providence Phoenix and other newspapers and has appeared on She was an Associated Press Award-winning radio talk host for 13 years and the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood of RI 1977-1987. Her most recent book, ABORTION - The A Word (Gadd Books) is available on line and in major bookstores.


Editor’s Pick
MARCH 21, 2010 6:54PM

Catholic Scoreboard: Nuns and Laity 2, Bishops 0

Rate: 10 Flag


The healthcare reform debate in Congress has brought to the fore a sharp division within the Catholic Church. The lines are drawn by gender: Catholic bishops focused on the unborn on one side; Catholic nuns advocating for the already-born on the other.

 The bishops have opposed President Obama’s healthcare reform plan on the ground, claiming that it does too little to guard against public money being used for abortion. But the nuns have taken a broader view and backed the plan.

Not since October 7, 1984 when an historic New York Times ad sponsored by Catholics for Free Choice -- with 97 nuns, priests, theologians and feminists signing on to defy Rome and defend Geraldine Ferraro's pro-choice position as a vice-presidential candidate – has there been such a public battle. When the dust settled back then, all of the priests who’d signed the letter succumbed to Vatican pressure to recant. Most of the nuns, however, refused to back off. Those determined women and their orders became the underpinnings of America's pro-choice Catholic majority.

 Many nuns feel they have little to lose in challenging bishops because they have been treated so shabbily by their hierarchy. Many of America's nuns supporting Obama's healthcare initiative were, until recently, among the "uninsured" that the bill addresses. Only in the past two decades have US bishops taken up an annual collection to pay for basic health insurance for nuns, and for their decades of unpaid Social Security.

  Regarding the abortion-funding question, federal dollars have long been
unavailable to abortion patients. Since Jimmy Carter told American women "life is unfair" when they asked why their sisters on public assistance should be denied access to legal abortions, poor women, female government employees, women in the military and all female dependents covered by federal health plans have had no abortion coverage.

 But the prospect of national reform prompted anti-choice extremists to demand that no tax dollars be used for health insurance plans that cover abortion for those who wish to use it. Nuns replied that a true pro-life view focuses on the millions of uninsured men, women and children who will be saved under a national plan.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) has led the pack of Catholic lawmakers looking for ever-tighter abortion restrictions. After a prolonged holdout, he announced his support for the Obama plan on Sunday after the president agreed to issue an executive order clarifying that the Hyde Act (which bans federal funding of abortions) applies to the new law.

 But in withholding his support for so long and endangering the bill, Stupak ignored the endorsement of the plan by nuns, Catholic hospitals (through the Catholic Health Association), and the Catholic press (through the respected National Catholic Reporter ) -- all of them "pro-life." Stupak told the New York Times that “when I deal or am working on right-to-life issues, we don't call the nuns."

I bet he doesn't. He probably doesn't ask any other women for their opinions on problem pregnancy options, either.

The new healthcare law will doubtless do nothing to impinge on contraception, male and female sterilization, and endless prescriptions for "erectile dysfunction" so that some men can have even more and better sex outside of marriage.  All such activities would take Catholics into the "mortal sin" zone as quickly as any abortion would, yet on all of those points, the bishops are (thankfully) silent.

 Abortion has become the "evil of drink" of this century, and legal prohibitions against it always fail as dismally as the 18th amendment banning alcohol did. Catholics have always used abortion services as often as women from other faiths or no faith, despite the ranting of bishops.  Maybe the "burning in hell" message has been drowned out by the hypocrisy among priests and the hierarchy regarding their own sexual behavior and crimes.

Today, as when nuns and others first challenged Rome on abortion in ‘84, too many women are dying from breast cancer, ovarian cancer, overlooked cardiac crises, ignored psychoses that may lead to suicide, domestic abuse injuries and deaths, and a host of other illnesses, injuries and fatalities a national health plan might help identify, diagnose, treat, avoid and even cure. Women are uninsured in larger numbers than men, and their children go uninsured, and untreated, with them. The already-born need care and compassion in the purest form of "respect for human life."

Those are the only truths that will matter to most women in the pews at Mass on Sundays. Catholic women (and laymen) know how complicated life can be, and how much flexibility and compassion is needed for all of us to survive (especially in today's economy). That is why Catholics and others whose faiths may forbid abortion often ignore such prohibitions and have always done so. Some clergy, including Catholic bishops, take the simplistic view where there is no grey area except in their personal worlds, but in doing so they damage the credibility of their church and they insult the intelligence and the moral commitment of their flocks.

 The majority of American Catholics -- often led by the nuns of their childhood -- have always chosen reasonable responses to complicated and personal life challenges, even when their clergy have seemed unable to do so. Such a rational approach is the best example of the appropriate and rightful exercise of free will and conscience. (Both of these are basic to Catholic teaching, in which they are called “the sense of the faithful.”)

The bishops and men like Mr. Stupak make a grave mistake in underestimating the power of reason and compassion over dogmatic tyranny. And history shows they risk failing miserably.

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Very informative piece, thank you, although a sad reality.
Wow! Thank you for elucidating the complex machinations regarding American healthcare reform within the Catholic Church. I was entirely unaware of the variety of responses, and the broader views of the Catholic nuns. It is encouraging to see common sense penetrating the deepest recesses of centuries-old dogma.
Sad but true. Why is it that the nuns always seem to be the ones doing all the work, living in the worst conditions, driving the crappy cars, while the priests get the luxury stuff. That always puzzled me as well. Maybe it's time for a women run church.
As always Mary Ann, excellent, informative post.
Thanks for the reads, rates and comments...Poppi Iceland, I like the way you think!
The Catholic Health Association and the nuns who favor the current health care reform are actually in agreement with the US Catholic Bishops in that all want health care reform--they just disagree over whether the language in the current measure adequately addresses the issue of abortion. You can read both positions linked on the post I posted earlier this weekend: CHA Letter, USCCB Position . Most are in agreement that health care reform needs to take place, including the Catholic bishops, who want it to be universal.
Sorry, Kathy, "universal" coverage means everybody gets coverage-- not just the people who share the bishops' view of the world.
Informative piece, yay for the nuns!
Sorry, here's the link to the resolution passed in 1993: A Framework for Comprehensive Health Reform, which I failed to add above.

Mary Ann, that's the point exactly. They all want health care reform, just differ on what constitutes "universal."
Again, "universal" means everybody gets coverage. Pro-choice people, including the nuns, mean EVERYBODY gets it...even hypocritical pedophile priests and cardinals...It is the bishops who don't get what "universal" means.
I know it's your pleasure to defend Rome, but it's not going to fly with me. I know them too well and have dealt with them too often. Thanks.
good read, Mary Ann. The bishops will always have you biting in their bedclothes, won't they?
With rare exceptions (the recent Rielle Hunter piece), I don't try to tell people how to think; it's more my style to present data and let people make up their own minds. I will take issue with people characterizing my own position, however. As Stellaa will attest, it's a risky business to assume what that is. For that reason, I try not to do it to others.
E. J. Dionne has an excellent piece in yesterday's Washington Post which adds some perspective: The nuns, the bishops, and health care. It helps to also read his previous piece, On health care, listen to the nuns.
Thank you for your insightful post. I have always wondered why the nuns would put up with the crap that the Bishops impose on them and the rest of the Catholics. The Bishops were the ones who covered up and protected pedophile priests for generations and it is obvious they only care about the unborn, not the already here. As a former Catholic, I distrust most religious doctrines because from my experience it all boils down to money and control. No birth control, more parishioners to collect from on Sunday. More guilt to pass around and perpetuate, just like the sex abuse. It stopped being about God a long time ago and remains about controlling people-especially women. Their 'Uterine Envy' needs to stop. As regards to the health care bill, there should be no subsidy for the stiffy drugs as they have never covered the cost of birth control for women.
Thank you for this post, and for all your work on Open Salon. I hadn't thought about how recently (and perhaps unreliably) nuns were given health insurance. I did think about the orders that have been evicted from their homes when the archdiocese sold the property to pay sex-abuse judgments. The courage of the nuns in standing up to the bishops must be applauded every chance we get.
A notable exception to that would be the Rochester Franciscans, who have full healthcare for life courtesy of Mayo Clinic because of their association with them from the beginning.
Great commentary! I still consider myself Catholic, but it's the hypocrisies and narrow-mindedness that you discuss that has led me to practice my faith in an Episcopal congregation. Bravo to the courageous and compassionate Catholics who took on this issue.
It's high time the Catholic laity stepped in and demanded an equal share in managing the church and appointing all officials. Do you think the Pope would have got away with trying to silence the victims of pederast priests, if there were lay people in the management chain?

Catholic have to take this responsibility, even if it causes a split in the priesthood.

See here for details of how the Vatican ordered this travesty:
Eloquent and insightful, as always, Mary Ann.

Just one point where I differ: take the simplistic view where there is no grey area except in their personal worlds . I don't think there's that much grey there. The power and authority of the Catholic Church and especially, the hierarchy is the highest value and that's purely black and white.

And maybe I can clarify this for Poppi Iceland: Why is it that the nuns always seem to be the ones doing all the work, living in the worst conditions, driving the crappy cars, while the priests get the luxury stuff. Not all priests take vows of poverty but I think all nuns do. I don't for a minute think that justifies this phenomenon morally or ethically but it might in a very letter of the law, Catholic way. (I was raised by Dominicans and there weren't significant differences in the apparent material standards of living between the priests and the nuns. I don't mean that to touch on the far more important differences in hierarchical status, of course.)