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Who Speaks for the Catholic Church?

February 14, 2012, 6:20 pm | Posted by John Gehring

Sr. Carol Keehan, Catholic Health AssociationThe National Catholic Register has an ugly piece of journalism up online that takes cheap shots at one of the most respected Catholic leaders in the nation. Under the conspiratorial headline, “What Did CHA’s Sister Carol Keehan Know and When Did She Know It?,” the article implies that Sister Keehan does not speak for the Church and received special treatment from the White House during negotiations over a revised ruling on contraception coverage that has become a surprising election-year controversy.

From the Register:

The confusion and possible institutional damage generated by Sister Carol’s public endorsement have led some Catholic experts in the health-care field to demand an accounting. On the basis of what information and what authority did she issue this endorsement? It’s embarrassing from a policy standpoint,” noted Paul Danello, an expert on civil and canon law issues in Catholic health care, who has received calls from Catholic hospitals worried about the implications of the HHS final rule. If the CHA board hasn’t authorized this, if she has no mandate from the USCCB, and if there are no legally binding documents, she is operating without any legal, governance or regulatory basis. That is a hell of a situation for a Roman Catholic nun that heads the Catholic Health Association to be in.

Here we go again. Two years ago, the Catholic Health Association and many Catholic sisters endorsed health care reform legislation even in the face of vocal opposition from bishops. The slings and arrows were aimed at Keehan, a woman who remained dignified and graceful in the face of personal attacks.

Let’s be clear. Sr. Keehan knows more about the real-world dimensions of health care than nearly anyone in the country and has spent more time in hospitals than any bishop. She has earned respect because of her knowledge, commitment and unfailing decency. Keehan has stacked up more awards from Catholic institutions than you can count, including the prestigious Cardinal Bernardin award presented by the Catholic Common Ground Initiative. So Mr. Danello’s hyperventilating about this “hell of a situation for a Roman Catholic nun” is laughable.

And of course the White House would see Sr. Keehan as a valuable person to have at the table. As I noted earlier today, the Catholic Health Association is the Church’s premier health care ministry and the largest group of nonprofit health providers in the nation, representing more than 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term care and other health facilities in all 50 states.

The fundamental question here about who “speaks for the Church” is too frequently framed as a simplistic struggle: Bishops v. Catholic Sisters. Bishops v. Theologians. Bishops v. Laity. The reality is many people speak for the church in different capacities and at different times. But that’s a heretical proposition for some Catholic conservatives and not a few bishops who fume over the fact that on this issue of balancing religious liberty and women’s health the Catholic community is once again far from monolithic.

Catholic Charities USA, theologians, the Catholic Health Association, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious have all expressed initial support for the Obama administrations’ sensible revision. These leaders have “authority” and can speak for the Church because they are the Church!

The Catholic right would prefer to purge the Church of Catholic justice leaders and experts like Sister Keehan who don’t fall in line with ideological interpretations of Catholicism that often sound like GOP talking points. It’s far easier to demonize and distort than work through differences in search of common ground. That makes for boring blogging and harder to send urgent fundraising e-mails that fire up the base. But it’s critical for the health of our Church and democracy.

Here’s a news flash. Sister Keehan and others who are on the front lines of fighting for the human dignity and the common good won’t be intimidated into silence.

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