Hanging up the presidential pen she received for her role in helping to push through President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act in 2010, Sister Carol Keehan will retire on June 30, 2019 from her role as president and chief executive of the Catholic Health Association. A press release from CHA states, “Sister Carol has furthered Catholic teaching around social justice with her tireless advocacy for the poor and vulnerable.”
Many faithful Catholics—and more than a few Catholic bishops—might disagree. In fact, her support for President Obama’s healthcare plan—replete with funding for abortion and a contraception mandate which required that all employers provide free contraceptive care in their employee insurance plans—made her a highly controversial figure in the American Church. The late Cardinal Francis George, the former archbishop of Chicago and past president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), criticized Sister Keehan’s role in helping to pass the flawed healthcare bill, concluding that “Sister Carol and her colleagues are to blame” for ushering in Obamacare.
At the USCCB spring meeting in 2010, Cardinal George openly criticized CHA and Sister Keehan, suggesting that she helped to create a dangerous precedent of a parallel magisterium to the bishops. Decrying the fact that the CHA provided “cover” for those who wanted to support Obamacare, despite its anti-life provisions, Cardinal George joined Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, then chair of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Bishop William Murphy, chair of the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice, and Bishop John Wester, chair of the USCCB Committee on Immigration, to denounce the actions of Sister Keehan and the CHA.
Still, Sister Keehan knew then that the bishops were deeply divided over President Obama’s healthcare plan. Some of the most influential bishops—including the now-disgraced Cardinals McCarrick and Wuerl—were always strong advocates for Sister Keehan and her efforts. At the height of the Obamacare debates, Sister Keehan was invited to provide a reading at the 80th birthday Mass for Cardinal McCarrick.
Responding to the news of Sister Keehan’s retirement, Cardinal Wuerl told Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter that he “always enjoyed working with Sister Carol on so many important issues…I’ve appreciated her practical, real-life experience, her deep faith commitment, her hard-earned wisdom and her delightful sense of humor.” Likewise, Chicago’s progressive Cardinal Blase Cupich said, “Sister Carol represents the best of religious women, all of whom have served the church so well, often in ways that go unrecognized.”
Phoenix, Arizona’s Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted may not agree. In December, 2010, Sister Keehan publicly criticized Bishop Olmsted’s decision to revoke the Catholic status of a hospital in his diocese after Sister Margaret McBride, a longtime administrator of St. Joseph’s Hospital, gave permission for doctors to perform an abortion. Sister McBride claimed the pregnancy was terminated to save the life of the mother. After excommunicating Sister McBride, Bishop Olmsted turned his attention to the role of the hospital itself.
Defending St. Joseph’s decision to perform the abortion, Sister Keehan stated, “They had been confronted with a heartbreaking situation…They carefully evaluated the patient’s situation and correctly applied the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services to it, saving the only life that was possible to save.” Sister Keehan also defended Catholic Healthcare West, which was then the parent company of St. Joseph’s Hospital, for what she called its “long and stellar history in the protection of life at all stages.”
Sister Keehan is fortunate that few noticed that in 2012, Catholic Healthcare West dropped its Catholic affiliation and changed its name to Dignity Health. Under the new governance structure, Dignity Health took a page from the playbook of secularizing Catholic colleges and universities, and described itself as “rooted in the Catholic tradition.” Since Dignity Health is no longer an official ministry of the Catholic Church, it is free from episcopal oversight.
John Carr, who was working as the executive director of the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development at the time of the Obamacare battle, recently told Michael Sean Winters that although he was working for the bishops, he could “scarcely contain his praise” for Sister Keehan “She has always focused on the least of these, not the rich and powerful,” he said.
Sister Keehan has always played hardball in her healthcare lobbying activities. I know that firsthand. In October 2009, the day after I published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal which pointed out Sister Keehan’s defiance of the bishops during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, Fred Caesar, special assistant to the president for communications at the Catholic Health Association, sent threatening emails to my (then) employers at The Kings College—including the president, the vice president, and the then-provost, Marvin Olasky. It was clear that Caesar wanted me to stop publishing articles about Sister Keehan’s role in the healthcare debates.
It is difficult to predict the future for Catholic healthcare. Sister Keehan believes that her legacy is strong and claims that she is “proud” of Obamacare. She recently told Crux that she feels “vindicated by everyday citizens who were once critical of the legislation but now support it, but particularly by the US bishops, who when President Donald Trump sought to repeal the ACA in 2017, vocally opposed the move.”
It is likely a bit more complex than that. Of course the bishops want to expand access to healthcare. They have always wanted to expand access to healthcare. But, most faithful bishops like Bishop Olmsted will never make a deal that expands the contraception mandate for employers or uses federal money to pay for abortion. There is always hope that we will begin again to see some progress in reclaiming the sacred charism of Catholic healthcare, but, unless Catholic leaders are again willing to take the harder, faithful route to reclaiming it—rather than the politically expedient or financially lucrative route—little progress is possible.
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