photo courtesy of Brian Rendel (flickr)

For a generation, the name at the top of the list of political heroes of the anti-abortion movement has been Henry Hyde. Bart Stupak wants to put his name at the top of that list for the next generation, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is trying their best to make that happen. Bart Stupak’s position on abortion in the health care bill may disturb people, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone, based on the people to whom he listens.

For months, the USCCB had been pushing the story that without the abortion language drafted by Bart Stupak, any kind of health care reform should be stopped. The Senate language, said the bishops, was unacceptable — it had to be Stupak’s way, or nothing at all.

Last Monday, the head of the Catholic Health Association, Sister Carol Keehan, DC, spoke publicly in opposition to the bishops (though without naming them), and called the Senate bill “a major first step” in making dramatic improvements in our health care system. On Thursday, leaders of dozens of Catholic women’s religious orders gave their support to Keehan in a letter to Congress, writing with even more directness in opposition to the USCCB (emphasis in the original):

We write to urge you to cast a life-affirming “yes” vote when the Senate health care bill (H.R. 3590) comes to the floor of the House for a vote as early as this week. We join the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA), which represents 1,200 Catholic sponsors, systems, facilities and related organizations, in saying: the time is now for health reform AND the Senate bill is a good way forward.

As the heads of major Catholic women’s religious order in the United States, we represent 59,000 Catholic Sisters in the United States who respond to needs of people in many ways. Among our other ministries we are responsible for running many of our nation’s hospital systems as well as free clinics throughout the country.

After noting what they see as the positives of the Senate bill, they took a very direct swipe at the bishops:

And despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions. It will uphold longstanding 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.

They said it politely, but the message is clear: the bishops are either liars or dupes, neither of which is terribly attractive.

Bart Stupak’s reaction? According to Fox News:

“When I’m drafting right to life language, I don’t call up the nuns.” He says he instead confers with other groups including “leading bishops, Focus on the Family, and The National Right to Life Committee.”

Apparently Stupak doesn’t like it when actual health care professionals call the claims of his advisers “false.”

The USCCB is not a monolithic group, but its more conservative members are far more outspoken in attacking anything they view as impure. It’s not just about abortion, though that takes center stage. It’s not just about the place of women, though that’s part of it. At its heart, for the bishops, it is about their personal authority.

Here’s the latest example that has my teeth on edge: kicking the children of a lesbian Catholic couple out of the Catholic school run by the parish to which the family belongs and actively participates:

From the time they first enrolled at Sacred Heart three years back they never hid the fact that they are a lesbian couple, they said. “We decided for a number of reasons to send our children to Sacred Heart School,” Mary said. “We have loved it there. Our children were thriving there. When we first enrolled our daughter in pre-school we told the school administrators our daughter had two moms. We asked if this was going to be a problem. We said that if it was going to be a problem we could go else where. We were very open and they said it would not be a problem.”

The women said they never made a “big issue” of their family situation. “We have never flaunted it or pushed any political agenda at the school at all,” Mary continued. “The parents know; the teachers know. We’ve sat with the kindergarten teachers and have talked with them. Never over a three year period we never had any indication that it would be a problem at all. We found it to be a very accepting environment for our child.”

All seemed quite natural until a it came time for next year’s enrollment a couple weeks back . . .

According to Fr. Breslin, the priest of their parish, allowing these children in the parish school “would have been against Archdiocesan policy; and when a priest is ordained he promises obedience to his bishop; and I cannot violate that vow; and I will not.” A few days earlier, he explained his decision like this:

If a child of gay parents comes to our school, and we teach that gay marriage is against the will of God, then the child will think that we are saying their parents are bad.  We don’t want to put any child in that tough position – nor do we want to put the parents, or the teachers, at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Uh, Father Breslin? When you and Archbishop Chaput say to a child that they can’t come to your parish’s school because the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2357-59) calls homosexual activity “intrinsically disordered” and “a grave depravity,” that’s kind of like calling the lesbian parents “bad.”

But hey — if the bishop approved, that’s what counts.

This is the mindset of the people to whom Bart Stupak looks for legislative advice. They don’t like questions, or messy situations, or gray areas, whether we’re talking about abortion or contraception or end-of-life decisions or the children of a lesbian couple or anything else. Everything is black and white to them, and those in authority tell those lower down the totem pole which is which.

God help us.