ONE of the tragedies of the viciously politicized battle over health-care reform is the defection of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops from a cause they have championed for decades.
Indifferent to political fashions, the bishops were the strongest voices in support of universal health coverage, a position rooted in Catholic social thought that calls for a special solicitude toward the poor.
Yet on the make-or-break roll call that will determine the fate of health-care reform, bishops are urging that the bill be voted down. They are doing so on the basis of a highly tendentious reading of the abortion provisions in the Senate measure. If health reform is defeated, the bishops will have played a major role in its demise.
The provisions they dislike were written by two Democratic senators who are strongly opposed to abortion, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. Pro-choice groups condemned the Nelson-Casey language from the start.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, called their amendment "anti-choice," "outrageous," and "inexplicable." Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women were equally critical.
But the Nelson-Casey language still didn't go far enough for the bishops. This week, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, claimed the flaws and loopholes in the bill's abortion section are "so fundamental that they vitiate the good that the bill intends to promote." As a result, he said, "the Catholic bishops regretfully hold that it must be opposed."
Fortunately, major Catholic leaders - most of them women in religious orders - have picked up the flag of social justice discarded by a bishops' conference under increasing right-wing influence.
On Wednesday, a group representing 59,000 Catholic nuns plus more than 50 heads of religious congregations issued a strong statement urging "a life-affirming 'yes' vote" in support of the Senate bill.
"While it is an imperfect measure, it is a crucial next step in realizing health care for all," the statement said, adding that the bill's support for pregnant women represented "the real pro-life stance."
"We as sisters focus on the needs of people," said Sister Simone Campbell, speaking for the group. "When people are suffering, we respond."
No one was more troubled by the bishops' decision than Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association. She loyally refuses to criticize the bishops, but argues that their interpretation of the abortion language is simply wrong. She, too, released a forceful statement in support of the Senate bill.
"We looked at the bill," she said in an interview. "We spent a lot of time with Senators Casey and Nelson. We agreed to support it because we believe it meets the test of no federal funding for abortion.
"Perhaps the language is not the way I would write it, but it meets the test. I was not going to take a little bit of abortion [in the bill] to get federal funding."
She added: "I can't walk away from extending coverage to more than 30 million people."
Rather astonishingly, the bishops' statement misrepresented the view of the association, whose members include 600 Catholic hospitals and 1,400 nursing homes.
Cardinal George acknowledged that the bishops' "analysis of the flaws in the legislation is not completely shared by the leaders of the Catholic Health Association."
Then he said: "They believe, moreover, that the defects that they do recognize can be corrected after the passage of the final bill."
But Sister Carol, as she is known, said the latter assertion was flatly not true.
"We're not saying that," she said.
Her organization believes the bill as currently written guarantees that there will be no federal funding for abortion and does not need to be "corrected." Why the bishops would distort the position of the church's major health association is, to be charitable, a mystery.
House members, as they vote on health care, will be representing primarily their positions as Americans and as agents of their constituents, though many will also be influenced by their faith.
Those with a special affection for the Roman Catholic Church have an extra reason for voting in favor of the health bill.
By passing it, they would save the bishops from the moral opprobrium that would rightly fall upon them if they succeeded in killing the best chance we have to extend health coverage to 30 million Americans. My hunch is that many bishops would be quietly grateful.
In their hearts, they know the nuns are right.
E.J. Dionne, Jr., is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.