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Fallout grows in wake of women religious, bishops' split.

A Rhode Island health care system and two East coast women religious communities have fallen victims in a split between the U.S. Catholic bishops and several Catholic organizations over abortion clauses in health care legislation passed into law last month.

Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., has demanded that the Catholic Health Association remove St. Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island from its membership rolls, calling its affiliation with the association "embarrassing," according to Religion News Service, which first reported the story.

In a March 29 letter to Catholic Health Association president and CEO Sr. Carol Keehan, Tobin said the association had "misled the public and caused serious scandal for many members of the church." St. Joseph Health Services is sponsored by the diocese and runs its only Catholic hospital.

With the outcome of the Democratic Party-supported health care bill uncertain in March, Keehan, a Daughter of Charity, urged the House to pass the Senate-approved bill, declaring that despite other weaknesses that still needed fixing, the Senate bill did not introduce or expand federal funding for elective abortion.

The U.S. Catholic bishops disagreed, and urged the bill's defeat. The bill passed on March 21, after President Obama promised to sign an executive order upholding a longstanding ban on federal funding of abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and the poor health of the mother.

Following Keehan's move, Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, issued a statement on behalf of that lobbying organization, lauding the Catholic Health Association's stand. She also drafted a letter to members of Congress that she distributed to many leaders of women's religious orders, urging passage of the Senate bill. Many women religious order heads, including the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, signed on.

Bishop Lawrence E. Brandt of Greensburg, Pa., has directed his diocesan offices, parishes and the diocesan newspaper not to promote "the vocation awareness program of any religious community" that was a signatory to the Network letter.

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 set for late April.

The leadership team of the St. Joseph Sisters of Baden had added their signatures to the Network letter. The sisters operate out of the Pittsburgh diocese, where the motherhouse is situated. Greensburg is a neighboring diocese where the sisters have served.

Diocesan spokesman Jerry Zufelt said Brandt is also in dialogue with a second order, the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, also based in Greensburg, whose president was also a signatory to the letter.

According to spokeswoman Barbara Hecht, the St. Joseph Sisters earlier this month requested promotional support through Greensburg parishes for a vocations program being offered at the sisters' convent, scheduled for April 25. Congregations of women religious typically seek promotional support for programs through parish bulletins and other communications.

Following that request, Msgr. Lawrence T. Persico, vicar general of the Greensburg diocese, wrote a letter, dated April 8, to priests in the diocese, stating that no diocesan office, nor The Catholic Accent (the diocesan newspaper), nor any parish "would promote a vocation awareness program of any religious community that has taken a stance against the U.S. bishops by being a signatory of the Network document."

Persico concluded his letter stating, "For future reference and for the sake of consistency, Bishop Brandt directs that any promotion and support of a religious community's vocation awareness program must be vetted first through the Diocesan Office for Clergy Vocations."

Following reception of that letter, Sr. Mary Pellegrino, congregational moderator for the Sisters of St. Joseph in Baden and a member of the leadership team, issued a statement expressing regret over the bishop's action.

"We are saddened by the decision to ban promotions of our vocations awareness program in the diocese of Greensburg, where our sisters have had a long and rich tradition of service, particularly in schools and parishes."

Meanwhile, Catholic Health Association spokesman Fred Caesar said To-bin's request to remove St. Joseph Health Services was granted and that one other hospital said it may not renew its membership. Caesar declined to name the hospital, or where it is located. He said the association gains or loses one or two members each year and that for a member to pull out over a policy matter is not common but not unprecedented. He did not reveal the precedent.

Tobin said the Catholic Health Association's support for the bill was "in contradiction to the position of the bishops [and] provided an excuse for members of Congress" to vote for it.

The bishop has been an outspoken critic of Catholics--particularly politicians--who do not support making abortion illegal. He gained notoriety during the 2009 elections when it became public that in 2007 he told Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy that he should refrain from presenting himself for Communion because of his pro-choice position on abortion.

In a related development, in an address at Mundelein Seminary, Archbishop Raymond Burke, former archbishop of St. Louis and now head of the Vatican's Apostolic Signatura, reportedly said April 9 that consecrated religious who openly dissent from the authority of Rome and the church's teaching on life are "an absurdity of the most tragic kind" and should cease identifying themselves as Catholic.

Burke's remarks were first reported by Thomas Peters of the American Papist blog and later on LifeSite Burke gave his remarks in a keynote address at the Institute for Religious Life's national meeting at the seminary in Illinois.

According to excerpts of the address published by Peters, Burke took a moment to express his exasperation with the defiance of Catholic religious women who supported the health care bill.

"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?" Burke questioned.

"Was not the speaker of the House glowing to report that so many religious sisters were in support of her proposed health care plan?" he asked. "Was not a religious sister [Keehan] one of the recipients of a pen used by the president of the United States to sign the health care plan into law?

"Now is the time for us all, and in particular for consecrated persons, to stand up for the truth and to call upon our fellow Catholics in leadership to do the same, or to cease identifying themselves as Catholics."

His remarks reportedly spilled over to include actions taken by those U.S. women religious communities that did not respond fully to requests for information on questionnaires dealing with their congregations as part of the Vatican-ordered apostolic visitation.

Burke reportedly indicated that the attitude of sisters toward the visitation represents "a growing tendency among certain consecrated religious to view themselves outside and above the body of Christ as a parallel institution looking in upon the church with an autonomy which contradicts their very nature.

"Whoever could have imagined that religious congregations of pontifical right 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?" he asked.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious, asked for a reaction to these bishops' actions, said, "No comment."

[Religion News Service and Catholic News Service also contributed to this story.]
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Title Annotation:NATION
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 30, 2010
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