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Two sets of Sisters and the “Fight for the Soul of the Country”

A new book by journalist Jack Jenkins reveals—sometimes helpfully, sometimes unwittingly—how Catholic progressives work in pursuing their political goals.

The opening chapter of Jack Jenkins' "American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country" offers insights into how Sister Carol Keehan, pictured here in 2015 with President Barack Obama, helped support the passage of Obamacare. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

The Little Sisters of the Poor were back at the Supreme Court on May 6, continuing to lead the battle to preserve conscience rights violated by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly called Obamacare.

Ironically, just days before that Supreme Court date, a new book was released that details how other women religious were instrumental in getting Obamacare passed into law, in spite of the strong objections of U.S. bishops, who correctly predicted that the law as written would allow abortion funding and did not protect conscience rights.

The book, American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country (HarperOne, 2020), by Religion News Service journalist Jack Jenkins, covers a whole range of progressive politics. But the first chapter is of particular interest to Catholics.

That chapter contains the tale of how a handful of progressive Catholics, including Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who was then president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association (CHA), successfully lobbied Congress to pass Obamacare, even though many Catholic lawmakers were reluctant to go against the U.S. bishops.

The chapter is a revealing read in 2020, for the ongoing legal battles forced on the Little Sisters and other Catholic institutions dramatize the damage done by those Catholics, who in 2010 were convinced they were wiser than the bishops and that health care reform was worth risking moral principles.

However, the chapter is a one-sided telling of the story, unfolding from the viewpoint of the progressive Catholics who were involved. As a result, Sister Carol and her cohorts are depicted as smart and clever heroines, while the bishops come off as disconnected, unpopular, and ineffective.

The author explains in his Introduction that the entire book is based on “storytelling” by his progressive subjects and is meant as an insight into those groups rather than an objective history. Thus, he invites others “to add to, even correct the narratives” he recounts. I wish to take up that invitation regarding the involvement of Catholic sisters and the bishops.

Jenkins reports that Sister Carol was convinced Obamacare needed to pass, and she believed abortion would not be funded. She claimed that the bishops didn’t respond to her multiple requests to discuss ACA lobbying efforts and “didn’t so much engage with the bill as try to find a way to hold a middle ground that was ‘not endorsing but not opposing’.”

To his credit, Jenkins writes that he did try to contact the bishops’ conference for their side of the ACA story, but got no response. That should not have stopped a seasoned journalist, for the bishops have an easily accessed paper trail that shows they actively supported health care reform and articulated clearly their concerns about the abortion and conscience issues.

Jenkins relates that one week before the House was scheduled to vote on the Senate-approved bill, Sister Carol was frustrated that the bishops were not budging from their position. So she wrote a widely circulated column in the March 13, 2010 issue of Catholic Health World entitled “The Time is now for Health Reform” and assured readers the bill would not permit federal funding of abortion.

To complete that story, I refer to a March 14, 2010 next-day statement by Cardinal Francis George, OMI, then-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled “The Cost Is too High; the Loss Is too Great.” He observed that the CHA believed that “defects” in the bill could be corrected after final passage, and stated:

The bishops, however, judge that the flaws are so fundamental that they vitiate the good that the bill intends to promote. Assurances that the moral objections to the legislation can be met only after the bill is passed seem a little like asking us, in Midwestern parlance, to buy a pig in a poke.

Jenkins continues the story by reporting that Sister Simone Campbell of Network then contacted Sister Carol to tell her “Network would stand with CHA if she got pushback from the bishops.”

Sister Simone then wrote a letter in support of the CHA asserting that the bill would not provide taxpayer funding for abortion. Rather, “It will uphold longstanding conscience protections;” and, “This is the REAL pro-life stance, and we as Catholics are all for it.”

Network gathered 50+ signatures of several other sisters, including the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), and proclaimed that the signatories of the letter were heads of major women’s religious orders in the United States who represented 59,000 Catholic sisters.

Sisters Simone and Carol then hand-delivered the letter to Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill on March 17, four days before the House was scheduled to vote on the bill. They also released it to the eager media.

Jenkins rightly judges that this “was a staggering power move in direct defiance of the bishops” but he wrongly states that the signatories to the letter collectively “represented nearly sixty thousand nuns nationwide.”

Again, I offer a correction. A March 18 press release from the U.S. Bishops completely debunked the claims made in Sister Simone’s March 17 letter:

A recent letter from Network, a social justice lobby of sisters, grossly overstated whom they represent in a letter to Congress that was also released to media.

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.

The letter had 55 signatories: some individuals, some groups of three to five persons.  One endorser signed twice.

There are 793 religious communities in the United States.

The math is clear. Network is far off the mark.

Additionally, dozens of orders of women religious issued statements in support of the bishops’ position. However, the statements of the bishops and the thousands of sisters who accepted and supported the bishops’ position were drowned out by the progressives.

Jenkins helpfully reports that Sister Carol was supported by sophisticated public relations campaigns backed by leftwing groups such as Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Faith in Public Life and Faith in Action, campaigns that managed to dominate the media.

Thus, on March 21, 2010, the House of Representatives passed Obamacare on a narrow vote of 219-212, and multiple sources credited the lobby effort of Catholic sisters for securing the handful of votes that made the difference. Some observers also noted that the support of Catholic sisters gave Catholic lawmakers “cover” for going against the bishops.

Jenkins quotes President Obama praising Sister Carol: “We would not have gotten the Affordable Care Act if it had not been for her.”

One final correction is in order for another conclusion Jenkins reaches, based on the “storytelling” of his interview subjects. He writes: “The Catholic hierarchy, stung by the nuns’ rejection of their position, struck back in ways large and small.” The “real smackdown came in April 2012, when the Vatican . . . unexpectedly issued a scathing critique of the LCWR and Network,” he wrote.

Jenkins quotes Sister Simone as saying there was the two-year delay between the 2010 Obamacare vote and the 2012 Vatican document because “they’re just slow.” And she opined that Network was named in the document because “It made them angry that we won and they lost.”

Actually, that 2012 “unexpected” “smackdown” document was the long-expected Doctrinal Assessment of the LCWR, which had been in the works since 2008, long before the ACA was even in the works, and it addressed doctrinal problems simmering in the LCWR for most of the previous decade.

Even with these errors and omissions, the first chapter of the Jenkins book is a valuable insight into how Catholic progressives work. It also reveals how their determination to obtain health care reform at all costs resulted in them buying “a pig in a poke,” which has imposed huge challenges to the religious freedom of individuals as well as religious institutions.

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About Ann Carey 17 Articles
Ann Carey is the author of Sisters in Crisis: Revisited—From Unraveling to Reform and Renewal (Ignatius Press, 2013).


  1. The liberal nuns never had any Christian moral principles to risk. Progressivism is their religion, not Christianity. Being wrong about this outcome will have exactly zero impact on their pseudo-Christian fantasies. Those fantasies constitute the whole of their religion. Time to stop referring to them as our “sisters”. They’re not.

  2. PEW Research recently issued a report that 4% of sermons address the grave moral sin of aborting a child, nevermind the now constitutional practice of terminating babies born before or during an abortion procedure. As Catholics, the Church has barely begun the fight against this pagan barbarism. And a constitutional address is now too late. As with most of American Life, the law now flows downstream of a culture numbed by entertainment, activism, education,pride, and fear. Civil rights no longer has a moral dimension.

  3. The outcome of this scandalous situation will continue to be a disaster on many levels: these “progressives” have delivered the unborn into the hands of today’s “Herods.” People seriously interested in living as authentic Catholics by the authentic moral teachings of the Church now have another cross to bear; and, do not these aging “Sisters” realize that they will face their Bridgeroom in judgment? I’d be scared to death if I was one of them! Judgment and the possibility of eternal loss isn’t an empty theological concept! Finally, it angers me that these people claim to represent “the Catholic position.” And the Bishops couldn’t do anything about these rogue nuns? How come it is so easy to slam down a Priest or some laity who take positions that “offend” the Bishops’ sensibilities, yet they can never prevent dissenters from speaking at “catholic colleges,” or Sisters from these types of groups! It’s time for the Bishops to be men.

  4. Ann Carey’s analysis of the situation is masterful. What is frightening is the on-going consequences of the actions of a few who “know better than the bishops.” The unborn continue to be destroyed, moral confusion abounds, and in an act of “anti-witness” to the Truth, the Bishops look weak and inept. I would advise the Bishops (with all due respect to their divine calling as the Teachers of the Faith) to make use of the canonical apparatus in the Code of Canon Law to “manage” dissenters in a way that mitigates or removes the damage they can cause to souls. Finally, all of us need to remember that “social activism” begins with serving Christ and practicing a social activism that remains true to His Spirit as the Lord of His Church. It would be naïve to believe in the promises made by the politicians these Sisters chose to support over and above the Bishops. Now, abortion, contraception, and eventually euthanasia found a place in the corruption of America by Catholics, whose mission is to extend the Kingship of Christ into medical care.

  5. Ann Carey’s analysis of the situation is masterful. The church in the USA can protect itself from loose cannons by using the Code of Canon Law, which presents some solid guidelines as to who may or may not speak in the Church’s name. The Bishops are a pretty balanced group, and I believe their discernment on the matter might discourage those who seem to present erroneous positions as authentic Catholicism. Unfortunately, those who lead other souls astray will answer in the next world, if not in this one.

  6. We should not allow those who call themselves progressives to get away with their linguistic propaganda. They are left wing, pure and simple. This linguistic manipulation of the media should not be echoed by those who are the true progressives — following Christ and his cross. I am afraid that this linguistic battle is lost, but we should resist and not allow ourselves to be treated as simpletons.

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