April 15, 2010
Following a White House tradition that goes back to Franklin Roosevelt, President Obama signed the 2010 health care reform bill with twenty-one pens. He then gave twenty of them away to those who worked hard to pass the new legislation. Among the happy recipients were Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senator Harry Reid and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. These individuals strongly supported the President’s effort to overhaul our health care system. They were rewarded with this attention.
One very unlikely recipient of one of the pens was Sister Carol Keehan. For more than 35 years, Sr. Carol has worked with great distinction in governance positions at hospitals sponsored by the Daughters of Charity. At present, she is President of the Catholic Health Association. In the final hours of the campaign to pass the bill for health care reform, Sr. Carol threw the weight of her authority behind the President’s efforts.
Within the United States, there are over 600 Catholic hospitals. It has been a gift to the people of this country to be cared for and welcomed into our institutions of health care founded and staffed by so many dedicated religious. There is no surprise, then, that a religious sister committed to continuing Christ’s compassion to those in need would be passionately interested in a reform of our present system of health care. However, public support of this particular bill that fosters abortion has caused scandal.
The Catholic Health Association, led by Sr. Carol, adopted an official position that publicly disagreed with the position taken by bishops of the United States. Sr. Carol was not alone in her dissent. Network, a social justice lobby of religious sisters, also released to the media their letter to Congress in support of the bill. And so did the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).
On March 15, Cardinal George, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke on behalf of the bishops of the United States. He clearly stated the bishops’ opposition to the Senate’s version of the health care legislation under consideration because it expanded abortion funding and did not include any adequate provision for conscience protection. When these groups of sisters spoke out publicly to the contrary, they caused great confusion among the faithful and provided a cover for any member of congress ready to cave in under pro-abortion pressure. Listening to the news reports of those religious who spoke contrary to the bishops, some Catholics misunderstood the news. They mistakenly thought that the Church was now for the bill.
The number of sisters who dissented from the bishops on this question was grossly overestimated. These sisters do not represent the majority of religious in this country. Network’s letter about health care reform was signed by 55 signatories. They hardly represent the 793 religious communities in the United States. Nor does the Leadership Conference of Women Religious have any right to make the same claim. On March 18, the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious issued a statement joining with the bishops in calling for an ethically sound health reform, not one that expands abortion.
In a March 20
th interview with reporters on the White House lawn, White House Press Secretary Gibbs said that the President had met with Sr. Keehan. One can only guess what went on in those private conversions. But the public effect of a religious sister speaking out for a bill that contained abortion is tragic and lamentable.
Those who chose to contradict the bishops’ teaching actually played into the hands of the media and some politicians poised to use their words as if the sisters were speaking for the Catholic Church. They were not. It is the bishops who are the voice of the Church in teaching faith and morals.
There are two areas of harm caused by this recent dissent. First, by their support, those who supported the new legislation have advanced a bill that is regrettably flawed in its protection of the child in the womb and the freedom of conscience. Their bad choices will have bad consequences on many, not least of whom will be those denied access to the banquet of life.
Second, by their public dissent from the bishops, these few religious have wounded the conscience of the faithful. They have muted the living voice of the Church. Not every voice in the Church is the voice of the Church. It belongs to the bishops by ordination and the gift of the Holy Spirit, in their role as successors to the apostles, to speak the truth of the faith, both in terms of doctrine and morality.
What we are witnessing is not simply a disagreement on an issue, but a distancing from the very gift of the Church as a sign of unity and beacon of truth for our day. When those who make religious profession in the Church speak against what the pastors of the Church teach, they cause division. They also dull the power of the Church’s witness (Cf. Paul VI,
Paterna Cum Benevolentia, 3). But, when the faithful, both lay, religious and clergy, remain devoted “to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Act 2:42), the voice of Christ is heard clearly in the voice of the Church and the Church can more effectively fulfill her mission as the sacrament of salvation for all.