By Kathleen Gilbert

WASHINGTON, DC, March 19, 2010 ( – The U.S. bishops’ Office of Media Relations has called out a left-leaning social justice lobby of Catholic religious sisters, who recently threw their weight behind the abortion-expanding Senate health care bill, for “grossly” overstating their representation of American religious sisters. The bishops have also hit back at the Catholic Health Association’s accusation that USCCB president Cardinal Francis George misrepresented the group’s stance on the bill.

Earlier this week, the “progressive” religious sister group Network released a letter, which was sent to Congress, that was signed by 54 religious women leaders and claiming to represent “59,000 Catholic sisters in the United States.” The sisters’ support has since been praised and pointed out by the White House’s Robert Gibbs as “very important” in switching crucial House votes to support the legislation.

On Thursday, however, the USCCB’s Sr. Mary Ann Walsh wrote that Network’s letter “grossly overstated whom they represent.”

“Network’s letter, about health care reform, was signed by a few dozen people, and despite what Network said, they do not come anywhere near representing 59,000 American sisters,” wrote Walsh.

In a blog post the same day, Sr. Walsh explained that one must consider religious order procedures. “Many of the endorsers signed on as individual teams – that’s nunspeak for saying they represent only themselves, not their membership,” she said. “It’s a way of keeping all heck from breaking out in the convent where opposition to abortion is stronger than what Network says (or doesn’t say, since it won’t take a position and avoids the issue).”

Walsh also noted that, of the 55 names or groups listed as signatories, “one, Sister Marlene Weisenback, sign[ed] twice (Does she have Chicago roots?).”

“Sister Weisenbeck leads both the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) as well as her own community and signed for both,” she continued. “However, there are 793 groups of sisters in the USA, so there is no way that the 54/55 signers represent all the American nuns.”

In addition, said Walsh, “There is also confusion by those who might equate Network with the LCWR. Network is a social justice lobby.

“In no way shape or form does it represent 59,000 nuns. Even LCWR, the organization of major superiors of hundreds of religious orders, can no longer claim to represent that many, since a percentage of U.S. orders belong to the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious (CMSWR),” she said. LCWR claims on its website that, “The conference has more than 1500 members, who represent more than 90 percent of the 59,000 women religious in the United States.”

Walsh also hit back at statements by Catholic Health Association President Sr. Carol Keehan in a column by the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Thursday. Keehan, an adamant supporter of the health bill, accused USCCB president Cardinal Francis George of misrepresenting Keehan by saying the nun excused her support for the bill with the belief that its flaws “can be corrected after the passage of the final bill.” “We’re not saying that,” said Keehan, claiming that CHA was content with the bill as it stood.

“Why the bishops would distort the position of the church’s major health association is, to be charitable, a mystery,” Dionne jabbed.

But in fact, Walsh parried, Cardinal George had simply reiterated what Keehan herself said in a March 11 letter to the House of Representatives, in which she specifically called for an abortion funding ban as part of a list of needed changes for the bill.

“Cardinal George’s statement reflected the March 11 letter from Sister Carol. To suggest otherwise now is puzzling at best,” wrote Walsh.

On her blog, Sr. Walsh pointed out in conclusion that, “The media are having a good time with the nuns vs. bishops story.”

“AP has called. CNN wants a Friday afternoon debate. CBS radio Boston has been on the phone. And Catholics in the pew want to know just what is going on,” she wrote.

“Meanwhile the real problems with the Senate health care reform – unfair treatment of immigrants and threats to the child in the womb – get ignored.”