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The marvelous equivocations of Sister Carol Keehan

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 10, 2011

Earlier this month Sister Carol Keehan, the president of the Catholic Health Association (CHA), earned herself some credit with the US bishops’ conference by acknowledging that a diocesan bishop is the “authoritative interpreter” of the US bishops’ Ethical and Religious Directives for Health Care Services (ERDs). After a year marked by conflicts with the US bishops, Sister Keehan was signaling her loyalty.

Or was she? Within a week she was telling America magazine that the CHA stood by its statement of support for St. Joseph Hospital in Phoenix, which had been sanctioned by Bishop Thomas Olmsted for violating the ERDs.

The bishop has the authority to interpret the ERDs. Bishop Olmsted, exercising that authority, had determined that St. Joseph Hospital violated them. Yet the CHA—which, we are told, acknowledges the bishop’s authority—disagrees. In an effort to explain her way out of this glaring contradiction, Sister Keehan told America that the CHA certainly acknowledges the bishop’s authority. “But can we have a difference of opinion? Absolutely.”

Do you see how quickly the ground shifted? In her bow to episcopal authority, Sister Keehan referred to the diocesan bishop as an “authoritative interpreter” of the ERDs. Now she refers to the bishop’s opinion. But if someone speaks with authority about a question, he does not merely deliver an opinion; his word is decisive.

Perhaps what Sister Keehan really means is that the bishop has the authority to issue his own opinion? That would be a meaningless concession. It’s a free country; we all have the right to voice our opinions on any topic, whether or not those opinions carry any weight. And yet, meaningless as it is, that does indeed seem to be what Sister Keehan is saying. Speaking to Our Sunday Visitor about Bishop Olmsted’s decision to pull the “Catholic” label from St. Joseph’s Hospital, she said: “We deeply regret what he did, but we never thought he didn’t have the right to do it.”

Why does the CHA “deeply regret” the bishop’s action? Obviously because the organization thinks he was wrong to discipline the hospital, since (as the CHA has already claimed) the hospital did nothing wrong. But how could the bishop be wrong, if his judgment is decisive?

In the world of sports, an athlete might question a referee’s call—that a ball was in bounds, say, when the player felt sure it was out—but acknowledge that the referee has the final say. The referee’s call stands, and the game proceeds on that basis, even if the aggrieved player remains convinced, in his heart of hearts, that the ball was out of bounds. Sister Keehan seems prepared to concede the same sort of authority to a diocesan bishop: He has the authority to enforce his judgment, even if it is wrong.

But the authority of a Catholic bishop is not the same as the authority of a referee. In the world of sports, athletes are bound by an agreement to abide by the referee’s decisions. They are not, however, asked to believe that the referee has some special power or insight that enables him to make better judgments. In the Catholic Church, on the other hand, the faithful believe that because of his grace of state, because of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the bishop is better suited to make a decision on matters of faith and morals—and in this case, on the interpretation of the ERDs. So when a bishop makes a judgment about the application of the ERDs—and especially when the bishop takes formal action on the basis of his judgment, as Bishop Olmsted did—he is not merely issuing one opinion among many. He is settling the question.

In her January 18 letter to Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the president of the US bishops’ conference, Sister Keehan appeared to affirm that Catholic understanding of episcopal authority: 

CHA has always said to sponsors, governing board members, manager and clinicians that an individual Bishop in his diocese is the authoritative interpreter of the ERDs. We explain that a Bishop has a right to interpret the ERDs and also to develop his own ethical and religious directives if he chooses.

Again the words seem clear. But within days the CHA president was singing a different tune:

But Sister Keehan told Our Sunday Visitor that even though CHA didn’t agree with Bishop Olmsted’s assessment, they have always believed strongly in the importance of following the ERDs and in the bishops’ authority to interpret them. 

Here the blatant contradiction arises again. An “assessment” may carry a bit more authority than an “opinion,” but Sister Keehan is still indicating that she thinks Bishop Olmsted was wrong—even while she says that the very same Bishop Olmsted had the authority to settle the question.  

The public statements of Sister Keehan cannot stand up to even rudimentary logical analysis. But perhaps logical consistency was not her goal. In her letter to Archbishop Dolan, she sought to calm the fears of American bishops that the CHA was disregarding their authority. (It is revealing that she told America she did not expect that letter to become public.) In her subsequent public statements she has sought to reassure her supporters that she is not buckling under episcopal pressure.

By the way, Sister Keehan displayed her talent for equivocation again in her conversation with Our Sunday Visitor, when she tried to explain why the CHA has thrown its support behind the Protect Life Act, now pending before Congress. The Protect Life Act is designed to eliminate the funding for abortion that was contained in the Obama health-care reforms—which the CHA strongly supported, in spite of the US bishops’ opposition. During the debate on ObamaCare, the CHA argued that the bill did not provide taxpayer support for abortions; now the group is endorsing a bill that would eliminate that support. How can the contradiction be resolved?

“We are not supporting [the bill] because we think there was federal funding of abortion in the Affordable Health Care Act,” she said. “But we support anything that advances and strengthens our pro-life agenda.”

Not coincidentally, the “pro-life agenda” of the CHA failed to coincide with that of the US bishops last year, when the bishop encouraged opposition to the sweeping legislation that the CHA endorsed. Now the CHA has endorsed the Protect Life Act in an obvious bid to mend its tattered pro-life credentials. And Sister Keehan has written to Archbishop Dolan to mend the CHA’s tattered claim of loyalty to the American hierarchy. Anyone seriously concerned about the direction of the CHA would be well advised to look beyond the bland reassurances Sister Keehan has offered, and notice how much she failed to concede.  

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Feb. 11, 2011 3:44 PM ET USA

    I would say, "possibly," Cornelius, intead of, "clearly." More probably though, as an experienced executive and religious leader of her era, she has thought quite a bit about these matters and knows very well the authority issues through which she is trying to navigate. This is brinksmanship at a high level.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 11, 2011 3:20 PM ET USA

    Clearly, the Sister has not thought out the implications of what it means for a someone to be 'authoritative' in a particular sphere - in this case, in the application of moral norms to a specific situation. What I can't figure out is whether her error originates in a deliberate desire to undermine the Bishop or simply a lack of rigor in her thought processes.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Feb. 11, 2011 12:23 PM ET USA

    It is sad to see a leading Catholic Sister choosing the tactic of attempting to hide the lie in plain sight rather than being an example of self-reflection and repentance. When a person gets to the point where she is that committed to serving one master while maintaining the pretence of serving another it is time that she be removed, for her good as well as for the integrity of everyone else whose boundaries she is crossing. Whose responsibility is it to oversee her position? Good work, Phil.