Help a Sister out: In defense of U.S. nuns

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Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
I've been in awe of Catholic nuns from a very young age. As my family likes to remind me, I even wanted to be one. (I've heard this is common for young Catholic girls about to make their First Communion.) But as I've gotten older, that awe has turned into respect and affection.

When I was in college, a nun named Sister Carola helped me through a rough patch with my health and gave me a rides to the emergency room when I was too sick to drive. Her presence was a huge comfort in a difficult time.

Sister Christina, a nun in my current parish, was a tremendous source of strength when I was laid off from my job a few years ago. Her encouragement never failed to give me hope.

A couple months ago, I interviewed a nun from Indiana who fought a state nursing home moratorium in order to build a new facility for Medicaid recipients. In addition to wrangling funding for her project, she played a crucial role in the design process, researching the household model and working hand-in-hand with the architect. She's also the founder of an organization that provides healthcare to low-income families, children and older adults. Her commitment to taking care of the elderly and disabled in her community should be an inspiration to anyone in long-term care.

Last week, the Jesuit priest the Rev. James Martin launched a Twitter campaign to remind Catholics — and non-Catholics — of just how much hard work nuns do in this country. Martin's #WhatSistersMeanToMe project is an effort to respond to a recent Vatican investigation into the activities of American nuns, a group accused of having “serious doctrinal problems” and of promoting “radical feminist themes.” These concerns were outlined in the Vatican's Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Their crimes, according to Vatican documents, include defending contraception and homosexuality and focusing too much on social justice issues and poverty. To keep them in line, the Vatican appointed a bishop to oversee the activities of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization that represents most of the 57,000 nuns in the United States.

American nuns are a particular source of criticism for the Vatican because several Catholic health organizations, often headed up by nuns, have openly supported the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration's compromise on the contraception mandate provision. Those groups include the LCWR, Network (a Catholic social services lobby) and the Catholic Health Association.

In expressing their support for the legislation, the sisters parted ways with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has been a vocal opponent of healthcare reform and the contraception mandate. Bishops, according to the Vatican, are “the Church's authentic teachers of faith and morals.”

I don't intend to disrespect the cardinals and bishops who oppose the law, and as a Catholic, I respect their right to disagree. But it's hard to deny that bishops and cardinals are not the healthcare providers who will have to execute the ACA's reforms — or deal with the scenario that will play out if the law is overturned.

It is the nuns who run hospitals, nursing schools and nursing homes that will feel the direct impact of the law, so it might behoove the bishops to listen to these women. With more than 500 Catholic nursing homes in the United States, nuns surely see the impact of Medicare and Medicaid cuts in their facilities, so why in the world would the bishops attempt to silence them?  Would they scold Mother Teresa, too?

I can only imagine how discouraging it must feel to have dedicated one's whole life to serving the poor and the sick, only to be criticized for advocating on their behalf. But if the nuns running hospitals and nursing homes are anything like the sisters I know, they still serve with a smile, grace, unceasing energy and great compassion. Their faith and determination will carry them — and the residents they serve — regardless of what comes of the law. That's their job.

So if you can, thank a nun today. Tell her how much you appreciate her help and her expertise in your facility, and in your life. And by all means, Tweet about them using the hashtag #WhatSistersMeanToMe.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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