The Sisters Set the Slackers Straight

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday March 24, 2010 - 07:56:00 PM

Let’s hear it for the nuns.  

They’ve been on the front lines of providing health care for centuries, and they were right there this month when it counted to make sure that the nation’s first real comprehensive health care bill passed.  

First and foremost, they can take a lot of the credit for Nancy Pelosi, and for her steel backbone. She’s a woman much reviled by the Rabid Right. We know this because as a news outlet we get too many of their foaming-at-the-mouth press releases, and she terrifies them.  

Whatever you might say about the nuns who taught her, and who have educated generations of Americans, no one who’s seen them in action could ever doubt that women can be in charge of anything. As Pelosi made the rounds telling the boys in the House to shape up or ship out, she certainly must have, at least subconsciously, drawn on her experience with nuns who knew how to make bad boys behave.  

Bad boys like Bart Stupak.  

Bart foolishly told the press that he never listens to nuns: “When I’m drafting right to life language, I don’t call up the nuns.” Don’t believe it.  

“ ‘We have a number of nuns in his district, and they’ve been calling him,’ said Sister Regina McKillip, a Dominican nun who lives in Washington. “Who’s been on the ground, in the field? Who knows the struggles people have to deal with? It’s the sisters.”(quoted by Helene Cooper in the New York Times).  

When leaders representing more than 59,000 nuns endorsed the health care bill, deliberately contradicting the ill-informed and self-righteous posturing of the Catholic bishops, who have a lot to answer for these days, even bullies like Bart had to pay attention.  

And on the other end of the Democratic spectrum we have Dennis Kucinich, another former Catholic schoolboy, who cheerfully admits that he listens to nuns.  

The religious blog Beliefnet asked him about it once:  

“A lot of people have strong feelings--positive or negative--about Catholic education. Where do you fit in the spectrum?”  

His response:  

“Very positive. And I attribute it to the [nuns] who dedicated their lives to the religious. I was very fortunate. These are some of the most significant, important people in my life and I treasure their memories.”  

He explained his decision to go with Obama at the last minute in an excruciating apologia on the Esquire website which amounted to what the nuns would have called an examination of conscience.  

He said that when he thought hard about where his hard-nosed opposition could be taking the country, he changed his mind about voting against the healthcare bill. It’s one thing to go out on a limb in defense of an abstract principle, but it’s quite another to saw it off while you’re sitting on it.  

Our own Congresswoman Barbara Lee was also schooled by nuns—she’s another beneficiary of seeing women in charge and taking them for role models. She’s said that “my two sisters and I were sent to a Catholic school, St. Joseph’s in El Paso Texas, and the nuns there were very involved in social justice.” As she is today.  

But Lee’s a lot smarter than Stupak (not hard) and a lot more practical than Kucinich, though she shares many of his views on issues. She’s been solidly behind the Obama position while continuously pressing for improvements where possible, and has brought the Black Caucus along with her.  

And other women, all over the country, in all kinds of positions, weren’t afraid to speak up either. A friend of mine sat through a sermon in San Diego when the priest told the congregation that they should urge their representative in Congress to vote against the health care bill. She confronted him indignantly after mass, and he sheepishly said that the word had gone out from the bishop that this position should be announced from the pulpit. She let him know in no uncertain terms what she thought of his cowardice.  

At the end of the day, only 34 Democrats voted no on health care, and of these, only one was a woman, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota, a third-generation Democratic officeholder in a Republican-leaning state. Her stated reasons for her decision didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but probably collapsed into one: she was afraid she might lose some independent votes. There’s talk of running a primary opponent against her, and a woman, Connie Saltonstall, has been threatening to try take Stupak out in northern Michigan despite his last minute road-to-Damascus conversion.  

It seems obvious that the bold announcement that the women religious leaders made in the last weeks of the nail-biting campaign to get the House to pass the Senate bill had a lot to do with turning the tide. Several of the few Democratic holdouts hid behind their personal religious objections to federal funding of abortion, pretending that they didn’t know that the Hyde Amendment, for better or worse, already prohibited it. The religious women who run actual hospitals know better, and because they weren’t afraid to say so, Stupak and his cowardly colleagues lost their cover.