Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York should think about apologizing to Sister Carol Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association. He came very close to suggesting that Sister Carol has endorsed President Obama’s compromise proposal on contraception because she’s in it for the money that might flow to Catholic hospitals.
First, you decide how to read what Cardinal-designate Dolan said on Monday. Here is the account from Catholic News Service, which presumably is not in any way biased against the Archbishop:
Cardinal-designate Dolan said he emailed Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who heads the Catholic Health Association, on Feb. 10 to tell her that he was “disappointed that she had acted unilaterally, not in concert with the bishops.”
“She's in a bind," the cardinal-designate said of Sister Carol. "When she's talking to (HHS Secretary Kathleen) Sebelius and the president of the United States, in some ways, these are people who are signing the checks for a good chunk of stuff that goes on in Catholic hospitals. It's tough for her to stand firm. Understandably, she's trying to make sure that anything possible, any compromise possible, that would allow the magnificent work of Catholic health care to continue, she's probably going to be innately more open to than we would."
Here are the facts: Sister Carol was a staunch critic of the original HHS rules that required Catholic-affiliated institutions (such as hospitals, universities and social service agencies) to cover contraception in their health plans, despite the Church’s moral opposition to contraception. In fact, as soon as the offending regulation was issued on Jan. 20, she released a statement opposing it and launched an effort to get it changed. She was not afraid to “stand firm” against Obama or Sebelius.
In response to protests from Sister Carol, the heads of other Catholic groups, the Bishops, and Catholics across the political spectrum (including many liberals, of which I was one), the Administration finally backed down and offered a new rule last Friday under which Catholic-affiliated groups would not be required to cover contraception in their health plans. Employees could access it through their insurance companies. There are still questions about how this new rule would work for institutions that self-insure. The administration has said it sees a way around this problem and is working with affected groups to find a satisfactory solution. Again, there is broad support for insisting that this solution be found. And, by the way, many of us on the more liberal side are still wondering why Obama did not embrace this compromise right from the start.
Sister Carol endorsed the new rule when it was announced last Friday. Her statement did not seem all that distant from Archbishop Dolan’s own immediate response. While he said that the Bishops “reserve judgment on the details until we have them,” he also called Obama’s move “a first step in the right direction.” Then, at about 8 pm that night, a statement appeared on the U.S. Catholic Conference’s website denouncing the plan. Since the statement named no individual Bishops but was issued under a generic “we,” it appeared to have been largely staff-driven. Since then, the Bishops’ statements against Obama have grown tougher and tougher.
Personally, I find the Bishops’ increasingly hard-line stance unfortunate and unnecessarily divisive within the Catholic community. It also risks looking highly partisan.
But that is for another day. For now, let’s look at the Archbishop’s statement. Why shouldn’t Sister Carol have spoken out immediately in support of the compromise? The Bishops certainly did not complain when she spoke out immediately against the original rule. Does that mean you only have to clear statements when they are supportive of Obama? Second, Archbishop Dolan, who may have thought he was speaking sympathetically of Sister Carol and her role, is implying that she is somehow intimidated by the fact that she is dealing with “people who are signing the checks for a good chunk of stuff that goes on in Catholic hospitals.” This does not offer her the basic respect of assuming that she is speaking from her conscience.
And then there is that condescending, “It's tough for her to stand firm.” Don’t the Bishops have enough problems already with women who see them as unresponsive to their concerns without their leader saying something like this about a nun who has spent her whole life serving the sick and the needy?
I make no secret of my admiration for Sister Carol or my respect for the fact that she supported the Affordable Care Act because she saw it as a pro-life measure that would get health care for those who need it. She is absolutely someone who stands firm. (She is also very loyal to the Church and has no idea that I am writing this; I didn’t call her about this post because I suspect her sense of loyalty would have led her to tell me not to.)
Surely Archbishop Dolan, who by all accounts is a warm and open man, will want to revisit and revise those comments of his – and perhaps also encourage his brother Bishops to pull back from some of the excessive rhetoric. Many Catholics who stood with the Church on the basic religious liberty issues at stake here did not do so in order to see one of the Church’s true leaders on health care treated as someone who is weak and motivated by federal grants.