Greensburg bishop, sisters at odds over health bill

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Bishop Lawrence Brandt of the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg has declared that religious sisters from communities whose leaders endorsed the final version of the national health care reform bill can no longer promote their recruitment events in his parishes or in the diocesan newspaper.

"He 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," said diocesan spokesman Jerry Zufelt.

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

But the sisters say they support church teaching on abortion, and disagreed only with the bishops' analysis of how the bill would affect abortion coverage.

"Based on our prayerful discernment and careful research with other Catholic-based groups and agencies advocating for comprehensive health care reform, we believe that the bill indicated that there will be no public funding for abortions and that it would not violate doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church," said Sister Mary Pellegrino, moderator of the leadership team of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden. With the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in Greensburg, hers is one of two local communities whose leaders signed a March 17 statement drafted by the Catholic social justice lobby Network.

Although the bishops wanted universal health care, they believed the bill contained loopholes that would undercut a 34-year ban on federal funding of elective abortions, and that President Barack Obama's executive order extending that ban to the health plan wouldn't be legally enforceable.

The sisters are welcome to continue working in the diocese, and the bishop is in dialogue with them about resolving the recruitment problem, Mr. Zufelt said.

"This situation is fluid. Things aren't set in concrete," he said.

The Sisters of St. Joseph learned of Bishop Brandt's order after they asked the diocese to promote their "Explore" weekend for teenage girls who want to know what it's like to be a sister. Subsequently, on April 8, Msgr. Lawrence Persico, vicar general of the diocese, e-mailed all priests and parish leaders, saying that communities whose leaders signed the Network statement could not promote their vocations events in any parish, in the diocesan newspaper or at diocesan events.

The Network letter took issue with the bishops' analysis of the health reform bill.

"While it is an imperfect measure, it is a crucial next step in realizing health care for all," the statement said. "And despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold long-standing conscience protections and it will make historic new investments -- $250 million -- in support of pregnant women. This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it."

It was signed by more than 60 sisters, many of them community superiors, and by the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which includes the superiors of most women's communities in the U.S. The next day the much smaller Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious spoke out in opposition to the health care bill, for the same reasons as the bishops.

Bob Fetter, director of public relations for the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, said the sisters had no intention of opposing church teaching on abortion.

"Ultimately we sit on the same side of these beliefs as the bishop does. This wasn't something that was done to try to divide the church," he said.

Mr. Fetter said that when Sister Vivien Linkhauer, the provincial superior, signed the letter, she was unaware of how strongly the bishops opposed the bill.

"Had she known that there was strong opposition there, it may have had a different outcome," he said.

Although Bishop David Zubik has taken no action, "he does intend to have a pastoral conversation with those who signed the statement ... to find out why they signed," said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh.


Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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