Yesterday, President Biden presented Sister Simone Campbell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, for her 40 years of advocacy on issues of poverty, justice and health care. Sister Campbell is the executive director of Network, a national Catholic social justice advocacy organization. She represents a long-standing Catholic tradition in the pursuit of social justice.
Opposition to abortion is another tenet of the Catholic faith, based on the sanctity of life. And, after last month’s landmark decision by the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the abortion wars are in full swing. Some blame Catholics for rolling back federally guaranteed abortion rights. Three recently appointed conservative Catholic Supreme Court justices played key roles in the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Yet the issue of abortion is decidedly complicated. Most American Catholics have a nuanced perspective on abortion. About two-thirds of American Catholics oppose overthrowing Roe against Wade. Additionally, 76% think abortion should be legal in some cases but illegal in others, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Catholic views on issues such as the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are also complex. In 2012, conservative Catholic Supreme Court Justices Alito and Thomas voted to repeal the ACA. While that wasn’t technically part of the case (which was whether the feds could impose penalties on those who failed to purchase health insurance), what bothered conservative Catholics most about the ACA was the inclusion of a coverage mandate for contraceptives, and what some felt was giving the federal government too much of a role in health care. Ultimately, the attempt to overturn the ACA failed, as another Catholic, Chief Justice Roberts, voted to retain the individual mandate as an exercise of Congress’ taxing power.
Notably, the conventional Catholic view of access to health care sees it as a human right – at least up to a minimum level of basic care – that is owed by the community to each of its citizens. As a result, the majority of American Catholics strongly support the Affordable Care Act, especially legislative provisions designed to help the poor and other vulnerable groups.
In some ways, this progressivism is unsurprising, as illustrated by the role liberal-leaning Catholic nuns have played for more than 150 years as they push forward progressive health care causes and take measures in pursuit of a more equitable health care system. .
In recent times, the focus has been on affordability and universal access to health care, but also on transparency from key stakeholders in the health system, such as pharmaceutical companies.
A Catholic order of nuns and an investment organization are now pushing several big pharmaceutical companies to be more transparent about their lobbying efforts in Washington DC.
The Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, a group of Roman Catholic nuns based in Ossining, New York, and a Vancouver-based association of institutional investors known as the Shareholder Association for Research and Education, seek to establish reviews by third of the lobbying activity carried out by three pharmaceutical giants; Johnson & Johnson, Gilead Sciences and Eli Lilly.
This closely matches the work of Sister Nora Nash. As director of the corporate social responsibility office of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, an order of approximately 400 Roman Catholic nuns, Nash worked for many years to change the behavior of the companies that populate the portfolio of actions of nuns. Here, the focus has been on promoting greater corporate responsibility with a focus on reducing social inequalities.
Creation of hospitals and insurance plans
Historically, liberal-minded nuns found themselves at the forefront of avant-garde change. For example, nuns helped found the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota in the late 1800s. Mother Alfred recognized that the growing city of Rochester needed a hospital. Mother Alfred’s vision of a hospital – a place of active medical intervention – was revolutionary at the time. As late as 1890, there were only three hospitals in Minnesota outside of the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Mother Alfred approached Dr. Mayo with a proposal. The Sisters of St. Francis would build the hospital and provide the nursing staff, if Dr. Mayo provided the medical staff.
Earlier, in 1871, a Sister of Mercy, Mother de Pazzi, helped pave the way for an equally revolutionary change in health insurance. She helped found St. John’s Hospital. Along with founding the hospital, Mother de Pazzi worked with the United Railways Company on the nation’s first prepaid health insurance plan.
Support for the Affordable Care Act
Given the Affordable Care Act’s focus on improving equitable access to health care, it was only fitting that many progressive nuns would support the legislation. In 2010, a broad coalition of nuns sent a letter to Congress supporting the health care bill. The nuns’ position contrasted with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which opposed the legislation, primarily because it included coverage for contraceptives. The bishops have also argued that the bill could lead to the funding of abortions.
Among the nuns, there were also important differences. The Little Sisters of the Poor challenged ACA’s contraceptive mandate, objecting to having to provide “abortion and contraceptives” to their employees.
But Sister Simone Campbell disagreed. “Based on our reading of the bill, there is no federal funding for abortion.” She went on to say that “for us, first of all, tens of thousands of people die every year because they don’t have access to healthcare, so it’s a matter of life.”
Subsequently, when the Affordable Care Act was threatened in the fall of 2020, Campbell led efforts to defend the legislation. Health care experts from several liberal-leaning organizations joined Sister Simone Campbell for the so-called “Nuns on the Bus” health care rally. At the virtual rally, Campbell claimed that “Scripture calls us to care for the sick and the aged, and fulfilling that obligation in this election has never been more vital.” Sister Campbell urged Catholics to vote to preserve the ACA. At the time, she was particularly worried about the Trump administration’s support for two lower court rulings that could lead to the repeal of the ACA.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a practicing Catholic, claimed that “without the nuns on the bus, we would never have passed the Affordable Care Act.”
In the spirit of social justice, many Catholics have championed the ACA legislation which they believe seeks to address structural inequalities in society.
It even includes things that are likely to be controversial, such as contraception coverage. In a study by Dr. Patton and colleagues at the University of Michigan, 63% of women who identified as Catholic supporters required employers to provide contraceptive coverage, with no employee co-pays. Even among the “highly religious” subgroup — women who attend church services weekly or more often — nearly 50% approve of the birth control mandate.
Despite doubts about the contraceptive mandate, even the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has urged the Trump administration not to repeal the ACA. In a letter to Congress in January 2017, Bishop DeWane, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Homeland Justice, wrote that while the group initially opposed the ACA on the grounds that it expanded the role of the federal government in funding birth control, it nonetheless recognized that “the law has made significant gains in coverage and those gains must be protected”. A majority of lay Catholics support the ACA precisely for this reason.
Invariably, there will be a wide range of opinions among people of all faiths on social, economic and political issues. Catholicism is not unique in this regard. But, it’s important to note that while conservative Catholics have been the focus of media attention in recent months, the majority of American Catholics support progressive health care causes. It’s a long-established tradition in America that was started more than 150 years ago by progressive Catholic nuns.