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The Power of Speaking Up

Catholic sisters are naive, out-of-touch relics, right?

Anyone who harbored that stereotype was in for a surprise last spring. When Congress was voting on healthcare reform, a group of Catholic women's religious orders, representing 59,000 sisters overall, announced their support of the bill. By doing so they were defying the U.S. Catholic bishops, who opposed the bill because of what was seen as its favorable stance on abortion.

Most people would have expected sisters to be silent. Smart Catholics knew better. After all, many of these women had worked in or run hospitals that cared for the poor, and had seen firsthand the urgent need for more healthcare—even in a bill that they agreed wasn't perfect. So when the sisters spoke, in the form of a well-reasoned statement, their voice was unimpeachable. Said Sister Simone Campbell, a spokesperson for the group, "When people are suffering, we respond."

Sisters have long been depicted in pop culture as clueless followers. I've always lamented this, since the ones I know—who toil in refugee camps, counsel the desperate in drop-in centers, and teach in countless Catholic schools—are the unsung heroes of the church. And, by the way, their vow of poverty means that they do all this for free.

They are my heroes. This year they were heroes to millions more as well. — James Martin, Catholic priest and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything (HarperOne)

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