Recent public statements in favor of the health-care bill by the head of a major Catholic health organization and a group of nuns have given American Catholics a rare look at public disagreement among church leaders.
Experts on religion, politics and the Catholic Church said they could not remember the last time leading figures within the church so publicly contradicted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the official voice of the church in the United States.
Smaller Catholic advocacy groups span the ideological spectrum, but in this case the figures strongly challenging the bishops represent the vast majority of the roughly 59,000 American nuns and most U.S. Catholic hospitals.
The willingness of the nuns, including Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, to enter into open debate with the bishops shows the intense passion among American Catholics for universal health care -- long a top priority of the Catholic Church. And the bishops' willingness to fight the House bill likely up for a vote this weekend shows the continued preeminence of abortion among all other issues.
Keehan made news Monday with a statement urging passing of the bill. She said it does not use federal money for abortion and "has a wonderful provision" that provides tens of millions of dollars for women who are newly pregnant or already parenting.
"Is it perfect? No. Does it cover everyone? No. But is it a major first step? Yes," she wrote in the statement. "The insurance reforms will make the lives of millions more secure, and their coverage more affordable."
Then Wednesday, nuns who lead groups representing most American sisters released a similar letter in support of the measure, but with tougher language challenging the bishops.
"Despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions," said the letter signed by the heads of 55 religious orders and umbrella groups, including Marlene Weisenbeck, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents 90 percent of American nuns. "This is the REAL pro-life stance and we as Catholics are all for it."
The bishops have been unusually active in the health-care debate, issuing a raft of public statements focused on what they say are deliberate loopholes in the Senate measure to allow some public funding of abortions. Keehan and the sisters and other Catholic advocates of the measure cede that the Senate language is less restrictive on abortion than the measure that passed in the House but that the number of abortions it could potentially affect is small and hypothetical.
"It's not in opposition to the bishops, it's in affirmation of Carol's brave statement," said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, the group that sought signatures for Wednesday's statement. "I was doing my meditation and I thought: She can't stand alone."
Both sides described themselves as committed to health-care reform but in disagreement about the legal ramifications of the measure on abortion funding. In some cases, the language was strident.
Keehan is either "incredibly naïve or disingenuous," said Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann.
But privately some experts questioned if the disagreement was about the legalities of the bill or about health-care reform itself: whether a faction of bishops are not supportive of expanding government's role in health care.
Organized dissent appeared Thursday from a single group of more traditional nuns. Also weighing in was Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the bishops.
The impact of the women's statements wasn't immediately clear. The number of sisters in this country has been shrinking for a long time and their average age is about 70. However, many Catholics who went to Catholic schools grew up taught by nuns and the women have remained untainted by the sexual abuse controversy that has roiled the priesthood.
Some Thursday sought to play down their impact.
"This statement does not represent 59,000 nuns; it represents the . . . nuns who signed it," said the Rev. Frank Pavone of the group Priests for Life.