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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