This Sunday, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People will address this year’s senior class at Gonzaga College High School in Washington. For Sister Carol Keehan, here’s a suggestion for an inspiring topic: “How to make it big.”
As president of the Catholic Health Association (CHA), the largest group of not-for-profit health care facilities in the country, Sister Carol, as she’s called, delivered an 11th-hour endorsement of President Obama’s health care reform bill. Her seal of approval appeared to give the legislation a Catholic blessing. It even earned Sister Carol one of the 21 pens the president used to sign the bill into law.
However, the CHA’s endorsement contradicted the position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a group whose commitment to health care reform is decades old. The bishops exercise oversight on Catholic moral teaching that transcends the legislative policy provisions over which politicians squabble.
So whom to believe? Which group represents authentic Catholic opinion? “Listen to the nuns,” urges columnist E.J. Dionne, a Catholic, like Sister Carol, who wins praise in the secular world by his redefinition of the word “Catholic.” His endorsement of Sister Carol is critical to politicians like North Dakota Democratic Rep. Earl Pomeroy, who cites the encouragement of “Catholic nuns” to defend his vote for Obamacare.
Mr. Dionne also cites the support for Obamacare given by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, a group that did not bother to poll its 59,000 members before it issued a letter signed by just 55 women publicly endorsing the health care bill. By the way, Mr. Dionne and others should know better than to use the term “nun” to refer to women religious, a term for Catholic women who take different vows (not including a vow of poverty) for their various missions, usually related to social work. Many such women religious belong to the self-described “progressive” wing of the Catholic Church, are older than 60 and belong to religious orders that are dying out because they have failed to provide young women with spiritual challenges.
I don’t mean to impugn Sister Carol’s career decision. A member of the religious order the Daughters of Charity, she has spent her entire life in the service of others and is the very model of what much of Catholic women’s education these days aims to produce. Under her leadership, the CHA has become perhaps the most politically influential health association in U.S. history. With the passage of Obamacare, CHA under her leadership has demonstrated its political clout
But Sister Carol’s eye-popping annual salary is just under $1 million (on revenues of just $16.5 million). That’s not overly high for a hospital executive but may or may not be justified for a religious sister who, unlike a nun, is not obliged to turn over her income to her order.
The CHA’s real influence is demonstrated not over provisions of the health care legislation but by the effective way it has challenged the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. The CHA endorsement created an impression of internal division on what many had assumed was a bedrock Catholic commitment to protect human life. In response, a cardinal and two bishops, speaking for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement on May 21 that rebuked the CHA. Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo (Galveston-Houston), Bishop William Murphy (Rockville Centre, N.Y.) and Bishop John C. Wester (Salt Lake City) held CHA responsible for sowing “confusion” and opening a “wound to Catholic unity.”
Major Catholic organizations have agreed with the bishops and expressed their dismay at the Obama health care law. The Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious has 10,000 members who believe the bill plainly violates Catholic teachings. The Catholic Medical Association, the largest association of Catholic physicians in North America, called Obamacare “a substantially flawed and unacceptable piece of legislation.” It further added that the CHA’s actions in publicly opposing and undermining the bishops’ leadership are “imprudent and uncharitable.”
Sister Carol has stated that the CHA’s disagreement with the bishops is merely legal and procedural: The bishops see loopholes that allow taxpayer-funded abortions, while the CHA’s lawyers do not. As she put it on March 15, “We are especially called to share our expertise in the health care marketplace to help people understand this bill.” Apparently she thinks the issues are just too complex for the bishops to understand.
What are we to make of the jubilation expressed by Planned Parenthood and NARAL when the CHA endorsed the Obama bill - while neglecting to endorse any statement even acknowledging the bishops’ concerns? We are left to wonder about the CHA’s tactics and intentions.
Instead of representing Catholic values to the non-Catholic world of health care policymakers, Sister Carol is leading the CHA by advocating a secular and statist approach to health care that appeals to disaffected and dissident Catholics. Moreover, the CHA’s support for Obamacare promises to produce big financial benefits for CHA’s member hospitals - but at what price?
On Sunday, perhaps Sister Carol will conclude with this advice: “And so, graduating seniors of Gonzaga College High School, that is how you make it big - in this life, at least.” I don’t think she’ll add: “But not the next.”
Elias Crim is a publishing consultant and contributing editor to the Capital Research Center.