The Catholic Health Association and the Future of Catholic Unity
By: Stephen Phelan
Five years short of its centennial anniversary, the Catholic Health Association (CHA) appears to have achieved a level of influence in American politics unsurpassed by perhaps any other health industry association, religious or secular, in history.
Its role in helping to pass trillion-dollar health care reform legislation is widely recognized as having been crucial, to the elation of the Party in power, and to the dismay of the Catholic bishops and the American Church.
Achieving such influence can exact a price, however, both to CHA’s finances and its Catholic identity. Indeed, one can question whether the CHA, the largest association of hospitals and health care providers in the nation, actually wielded any influence over the legislation at all, or if it is simply basking in the evanescent glow of a grateful, and relieved, ruling political party.
But in politics, as they say, perception is reality, and CHA’s support for the bill was publicly hailed as a crucial moment in the passage of the bill over the objections of the bishops.
We now know the story: After months of public statements alternating between passionate endorsements of Obama’s “universal health care” legislation, sometimes qualified by calls for the bill to respect the right to life of all persons, CHA president Sr. Carol Keehan had a chance to show exactly where the CHA stood.
Negotiations had stalled in Congress as Democratic leaders’ flagrant bribing and arm-twisting of hesitant colleagues had failed to achieve clear majorities in favor of passage. The bill was held up by a small cadre of “pro-life Democrats” who, like the majority of the American people, claimed to find the bill’s expansion of federal funding for abortion unacceptable.
This small group threatened to bring down their own party’s largest domestic policy initiative in generations rather than consent to the largest expansion of abortion since Roe. In the end, however, all but a handful caved in to party pressure to support the bill, and the backbone of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), their erstwhile leader, simply crumbled into dust.
Although feverishly denied by its increasingly desperate proponents, every serious analysis of the Senate bill (the version that would eventually become law) found that it would in fact expand federal funding of abortion. Through an accounting loophole at the level of individual “care,” and through a seven billion dollar appropriation to community health centers, including Planned Parenthood, the law would circumvent Hyde amendment restrictions on federal funding for abortions.
That fact is what led the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to oppose the bill, even after the bishops had made it clear that many would have supported almost any version of the bill that didn’t expand abortion coverage. The bishops have been publicly supportive of government-funded universal health care since 1996.
Yet the controversial law ended up earning Sr. Keehan’s and CHA’s 11th-hour endorsement which, along with those of a coalition of female religious and various “Catholic” leftist groups, were cited by the bill’s proponents as proof that it had Catholic support.
The assertion of support by the media, Congressional leaders, and the Obama administration went unchallenged by Sr. Keehan, and, as a result, the Church suffered immeasurable damage. Once again, the Church appeared divided even on the question of the value of the life of the most vulnerable Americans. Indeed, Cardinals DiNardo, Murphy, and Wester, speaking for the USCCB, issued a statement on May 21 singling out the CHA for its responsibility for sowing “confusion” and opening a “wound to Catholic unity.”
This statement does not bode well for CHA’s future, but suggests the meaning of being Catholic in America will be readjusted by the bishops as a result of the controversy.
The bill of course passed, and Sr. Keehan, for her efforts and on behalf of the CHA, received a “signing pen” from President Obama, one that was used put into law a bill that was opposed by every bishop, and every Catholic organization faithful to the Church.
So the CHA’s historically unprecedented power affected neither the legislation itself, nor the highly questionable means of its passage—it merely made its being signed into law possible by giving cover to a small handful of wavering Catholic Democratic congressmen.
When presented a clear choice between the Church and the political party in power, the CHA chose the latter, eschewing the only chance it had to defend unborn human life in the law itself. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, claimed victory upon the bill’s passage, knowing full well the boon it promises for the nation’s largest provider of abortions.
When a Catholic organization blatantly opposes every Catholic bishop and finds itself sharing the joy of Planned Parenthood and the most radically pro-abortion president in the nation’s history, it may be time to reflect on that organization’s claim to identify itself as Catholic.
Sr. Keehan’s CHA sees its role as not only lobbying for the interests of its members, but as advocating a secular, statist view of health care policy in language that some Catholics might find reasonable. With the passage of “ObamaCare,” it has clearly succeeded at both. In defying the Catholic Church — and bizarrely claiming not to – Sr. Keehan made Obama and his Democratic Party her de facto moral authority.
It is difficult to understand why more Catholics don’t find this strange, even if they share CHA’s view on health care. If Sr. Keehan really has the influence in the corridors of power that she appears to have, why could she not secure meaningful protections for the unborn, the elderly, and the most seriously injured – those whose lives are already discounted or increasingly threatened in today’s secularized health care industry?
Wouldn’t a Catholic health care leader spend her hard-earned capital on making the health care law more “Catholic”, rather than simply promoting the President’s vision with Catholics?
This is where the thinking Catholic starts wondering what exactly is “Catholic” about the Catholic Health Care Association. Of course, the CHA does represent the nation’s Catholic hospitals in Washington. But, shouldn’t it also represent the Church?
One needn’t be a biblical scholar to recall numerous admonitions in Scripture against seeking the approval of worldly powers at the expense of fidelity to God. If this is too dramatic a comparison for some, then where is the defense of Sr. Keehan’s actions?
Let’s attempt one on her behalf, since she has yet to publish a serious, analytical response to the bishops’ and others’ many expositions of the bill’s problems.
It’s clear that Sr. Keehan shares the Church’s desire to have quality health care available to all at a reasonable expense. This shouldn’t be controversial, although it is worthwhile debating exactly what this means and whether a government-controlled system really is the best way to deliver on such a goal.
Sr. Keehan has also gone on the record repeatedly about her supposed agreement with the bishops on the need to defend the life of the unborn, to protect the conscience rights of health professionals, and to oppose the increasing threats to the elderly and those with seriously debilitating illnesses and injuries.
This is all well and good, but we don’t have to question the pro-life convictions and Catholic fidelity of Sr. Keehan and the CHA to question what happened to these convictions when they were most needed—when she faced a clear choice between the Church and the State, choosing the latter.
It is not enough to simply be offended by such a question and brush it off, as Sr. Keehan’s apologists have been doing since her baffling insubordination, as if the differences between Sr. Keehan and the bishops were merely of opinion. The bishops and other defenders of the Church’s position on Obamacare have published gigabytes of detailed analysis of the legislation and precise commentary on what the problems with the law are. Sr. Keehan has yet to demonstrate her acknowledged expertise with a serious defense of her actions: She has only replied with churched-up talking points that mirror those of Congress and the administration.
It should also not go without mention that the passage of health care legislation will be a boon to Catholic hospitals – the CHA’s membership – as currently uninsured patients will soon be paying bills, or having them paid, instead of skipping them. Look for an increase in dues and revenues to the CHA soon after this legislation takes full effect.
After the bill’s passage, Bishop Thomas Tobin wasted little time in putting an end to Rhode Island Catholic hospitals’ membership in CHA. Archbishop Chaput and a few other shepherds have also denounced the CHA’s betrayal of the Church in unequivocal terms.
Faithful Catholics are grateful for these rebukes to the CHA, but is this all that can be done? It is understandable that the bishops want to reach out pastorally to those who defy the Church, and surely this is happening to some degree behind the scenes.
But, it isn’t only the authority of the bishops that is at stake, although one would think that alone would be cause for severe sanctions against the CHA. The very possibility of unity on the clearest teachings of the Faith is at stake, not to mention the very definition of the word “Catholic.” Great violence has been done to the Church by the actions of the CHA, not to mention the violence that many expect will be increased against the most vulnerable Americans once this law takes full effect.
The Catholic bishops will be meeting in June, and we can be sure that the health care debacle and CHA’s role in it will be discussed. The May 21 USCCB statement descrying “the wound to Catholic unity” in the health care debate was merely the opening salvo in that debate. Without doubt, there are difficult hurdles to doing what needs to be done to this rogue organization – problems having to do with its independent status and the possibility of collateral damage.
But, this concern only strengthens the need for the bishops to do something as a whole. Bishop Tobin’s response was perfectly reasonable given the CHA’s intransigent belief that it has no need to justify its actions. Allowing the CHA to defy the bishops and pretend as if it remains in harmony with the Church is a continuing scandal and violence against the faithful, and to postpone action in order to preserve what remains of a disintegrating façade of unity is to deny the reality of what this event means to the Catholic Church in America.