Catholic hospitals at odds with bishops over birth control mandate

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Washington, DC -Portrait of Sr. Carol Keehan, President of Catholic Health Association on August 20, 2012. Photo by Susan Biddle/courtesy Catholic Health Association

Washington, DC -Portrait of Sr. Carol Keehan, President of Catholic Health Association on August 20, 2012. Photo by Susan Biddle/courtesy Catholic Health Association

(RNS) The organization representing Catholic hospitals across the country says it no longer objects to the Obama administration’s mandate that all employees receive free birth control coverage.

The decision by the Catholic Health Association puts the hospitals at odds with the Catholic hierarchy, which last week rejected the White House’s final regulations on an issue that many church conservatives view as evidence of the administration’s hostility to Catholicism and religious freedom.

Washington, DC -Portrait of Sr. Carol Keehan, President of Catholic Health Association on August 20, 2012. Photo by Susan Biddle/courtesy Catholic Health Association

Washington, DC -Portrait of Sr. Carol Keehan, head of Catholic Health Association on August 20, 2012. Photo by Susan Biddle/courtesy Catholic Health Association

Sister Carol Keehan, head of the CHA, disagreed. “If you look at the final regulations it is very clear that we do not have to contract for, or pay for, or arrange for” contraception coverage, Keehan said in an interview on Tuesday (July 9).

“It was really important that this be workable from a legal and theological perspective,” she added. “That’s what we believe we have achieved.”

Despite the difference of opinion, church sources said the CHA decision — which was outlined in a four-page memo sent late Monday (July 9) to more than 600 member hospitals and medical facilities — was not likely to create a new split between the CHA and the bishops.

The Department of Health and Human Services last year announced that as part of the health care reform law it was proposing regulations that would require nonprofit and for-profit employers to include free contraception coverage in its employee health insurance plans.

The original HHS regulations included a limited exemption for religious organizations that object to birth control on moral grounds. The policy would also cover sterilization and morning-after pills that some say act as abortifacients.

But many religious groups, led by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, denounced the exemptions as too narrow and a serious infringement on religious freedom. The administration modified the regulations at various points after negotiations with the bishops, the CHA and others affected by the mandate.

While Catholic organizations like the CHA generally saw the negotiations as productive and saw a solution within reach, the bishops — joined by a growing number of evangelical and conservative groups — were unconvinced. During last fall’s presidential campaign they cited the HHS mandate as a major reason not to re-elect President Obama. The bishops have continued to protest, most recently in the Fortnight for Freedom campaign that concluded on July 4.

But in the wake of Obama’s re-election the main focus of opposition to the mandate has shifted to the courts. More than 60 lawsuits have been filed by Catholic institutions and other primarily Christian groups and Christian-owned businesses who argue that the mandate will unfairly subject them to huge fines and could force them to close.

On June 28, HHS issued final regulations for the birth control policy. Those regulations significantly expanded the exemption for religious organizations and stated that any other faith-based nonprofit that objected to the policy would not have to include the contraception rider in its health insurance plans. Instead, the employer’s insurance company would separately arrange for the rider with the employee and would cover any costs, which were expected to be negligible.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York prays during a Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York May 2, 2013. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York prays during a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York May 2, 2013. RNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz

On July 3, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the USCCB, issued a statement saying that a “first analysis” of the final regulations indicated that none of the bishops’ objections had been addressed. He said the exemption for religious employers was still too narrow and the accommodation that allows religious employers to avoid contracting or paying for birth control coverage was not adequate. He added that Catholic-owned businesses that object to contraception should also be exempt — a demand the HHS has rejected.

By contrast, the CHA said the first two problems Dolan cited had been resolved. News of the memo was first reported by the National Catholic Reporter.

Keehan said that the third concern, regarding private business owners paying for birth control coverage, did not fall under her jurisdiction:

“We have said from the start that our issue was much narrower than the issues the bishops were working on,” Keehan said. “Our contribution to solving the problem was to deal with religious organizations.”

As the largest private health care provider in the nation  — about 1 in 6 patients in the U.S. are treated by Catholic hospitals —  the CHA is a critical player in health care issues.

While the CHA and the USCCB clearly diverged on their interpretation of the final regulations, the measured tones of the respective statements indicated that neither side wants to repeat the falling out that occurred over the 2009 passage of the health care reform law, which the CHA supported and the hierarchy vigorously opposed.

In issuing its final rules last month, the administration extended the “safe harbor” for those objecting to the contraception mandate until January 2014. Observers say the lawsuits against the mandate are likely to have been adjudicated by the U.S. Supreme Court by then.

  • gilhcan

    And stick to your guns, lay people, Sisters, and hospital boards. We must all join in with those who oppose the “celibate” hierarchy for being so out of date scientifically, theologically, and pastorally. It is almost 48 years that the declarations of Vatican II have been violated by too many hierarchs, including the leaders of the “Reform the Reform” movement. John Paul and Benedict.
    Collegiality should not only include the bishops of the church, but all the People of God, lay people, priests, and religious.

    Monumental reform is the only thing that will save the dying church. Those reforms would do extremely well to model themselves after the successful structures and praxis of many Reformation churches, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, later Methodists, many Baptists, and especially the United Church of Christ in the U.S. We should by all means avoid the extremes of those evangelicals in this country that have become personal monuments to their founders like Rick Warren.

    Then we must work openly and avidly to promote genuine ecumenism. The most terrible sin of the churches is their division. Division is not the way of Jesus, “The Model of the Holy.”

  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    I’d trust Sister Carol’s reading of the rules long before I’d trust any of the Roman church’s hierarchs. For one thing, I’m very sure she has studied it, while the boys in purple are just playing to their masters in the Vatican. Her face reveals clearheaded, incisive competence. Why, oh why will they not allow women to be priests?

  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    The Romans have painted themselves into a corner with their sexism, homophobia, and, frankly, maintaining a system that, instead of pursuing critical thinking, rewards ignorance. At one time it was a church composed largely of unlettered, uneducated, hardworking people who hadn’t the means to leaarn to reason for themselves. That time is long over, but their hierarchy continues to pretend they can treat their layfolk as if they were 17th Century farmers or 19th Century factory workers.

  • Tom Lewis

    Fads Fanatics always demand compromise with those who promise safety, security, and the best that can be offered. Well, it is not the best, nor will any compromise be anything more than a Fad, that will pass in time and be replaced with some other fad the will exist for a short while and disappear.

    The morals of the Catholic church has not changed, nor does Vatican II change any Catholic moral. However sister Carol Keenan has lost her faith, and now she has lost her focus, by being obedient to the new god “Obama,” rather than what she took an oath of obedience to when she joined the Catholic Church. I understand that sister Keenan, is now and ecumenist and no longer Catholic.

    What has changed is those who support the new hemline of immorality, many who call themselves “Sisters” or “Woman of the catholic Faith,” but what is in a name, just someone who promotes the Fad of change which for religion is always a disaster in the making.

    The answer must always be “NO” to the reformers, who do nothing more than “Take” or “Steal” from what has always been the Catholic Faith and change it into immorality for the benefit of some “State” or “Empire” or “Emperor” or some other religion that does not have the same Faith.

    Changing the Catholic faith for a quick fix in Obama care, is like selling ones body for a hit of cocaine. The sister, is a modernist junkie, who will support any deal with the Federal Government so that the Church will compromise on the issue of Birth Control, Abortion, Infanticide, the morning after pill, etc. This so-called woman of faith is deceitfully a complete junkie for Statism.

  • Tom Lewis

    Time doesn’t change what Nature and Natures God has created for what has been necessary for human life, but those who promote their own self interest have always made changes, in that they have been self serving. Critical thinking demands a review of past events which obviously your education has shunted.

    Those self serving past events are what caused other Nations to decline and even disappear. As when Even ate of the delights of the fruit of the tree of “Good and Evil.” So you know present that tree, as did Eve as if evil is in fact a good. What is your age, how much time have you had in this life to know what transpired in nations that are no longer with us because they decided that the emperor, or the king had acquired a new idea, only to have caused the loss of life for both nation and people.
    You have no interest in life, you death culture fanatics deceitfully color yourself Good, by calling people ignorant, because they haven’t met up with your new American standard of what is so-called “Critical Thinking elite,” but in fact and in truth is no more than immoral hybrid of state mind control.

    You statist are a contemptible lot whose only focus has been the destruction of masses of people for the sake of some promised Utopian fatalism from which will promote immoral standards on a world that does not agree with your fascistic designs.

    You are death, deceitfully speaking as if you are a blessing put upon mankind, but in fact are no more than a parasite that puts out life, like a candle snuffer.

  • irishsmile

    The door to the Catholic Church swings both ways: Don’t agree,? Fine. Join a church that one agrees with. Keehan and her buddies are very good Democrats but lousy, pretend Catholics (like Pelosi and Biden). The bishops needs to make that very, very clear to folks in the pews.

  • Don Schenk

    I bet she’s “pro-choice” about murder, too–i.e., is against the death penalty, which exists to protect the innocent from repeat murderers.

  • David Gibson

    irishsmile and Mr. Schenk: What makes you think Sister Keehan disagrees with the church on abortion or contraception? The CHA’s reading of the contraception mandate is specifically that is does NOT force them to pay for contraception or sterilization or abortifacients. They say they are trying to uphold Catholic teaching, not contradict it. The bishops simply have a different reading of cooperation with evil — an interpretation that is not widely shared, I might add.

  • Father Joseph LeBlanc, SJ

    We assuredly disagree on your position, but, more importantly I would like to say: The Church is no more dying than you are. Oh, yes, problems, but in core and soul, the Church is not dying,.

  • magdalene

    Jesus would also be considered ‘out of date’ and His Gospel ‘hate speech’.
    We need bishops with a spine to sever all relationships with people who call themselves Catholic but lead the way in dissent, disobedience, and scandal. That is to say SIN. Yep, there still is such a thing! And never has the Catholic Church been free to compromise with evil and with the ‘world’; that is why she is persecuted.

  • SMC

    Spoken like a true Protestant.

  • SMC

    It’s time for bishops to step up to the plate! The catholic Health Association (Yes, I know I used a lowercase ‘c’, I did so on purpose.) should be made to remove “Catholic” from their name.

    Canon 216: “…Nevertheless, no undertaking is to claim the name ‘Catholic’ without the consent of competent ecclesiastical authority.”

    Dear Mr. Gibson, The Catholic Church does not work by consensus. Sr. Keehan split with U.S. bishops and placed herself against the teaching authority of the bishops. She’s wrong! Again!

  • David Gibson

    Dear SMC:

    I think you make two separate assertions:

    One, that Sister Keehan is wrong; in fact she may well be right, and is thought to be so by, I think it’s safe to say, a broad range of moral theologians.

    Two, that she has placed herself against the teaching authority of the bishops. The bishops — well, some of them but by no means all — were offering their judgment on a regulation. That is not a matter of Catholic teaching. Same with the health care reform, which they said paid for and promoted abortion. That was argued to be a wrong judgment then and that has been shown to be the case.

    So they were wrong on the specifics of a piece of legislation; pointing that out is not breaking with Catholic teaching or their authority.

  • SMC

    Dear Mr. Gibson,

    The opinions of theologians and Sr. Keehan et al are of little importance when it comes to the authority of the Catholic Church, that is a matter for the Pope and Magisterium.

    Sr. Keehan DID pit herself against the teaching authority of bishops. All one need do for proof is read the offical statement of the Catholic Bishops available at the USCCB website.

  • Daniel Berry, NYC


  • tony

    You know who does agree with the bishops interpretation of cooperation with evil???….the obama administration…that’s who. the obama administration isn’t arguing that these hospitals aren’t cooperating with evil, they are arguing that unless you are a religious institution that only serves people of the same faith …YOU HAVE NO RIGHTS. YOU have no free exercise of religion. YOUR RELIGIOUS and MORAL convictions are whatever the STATE says they should be.

    the nun like the author is merely playing three card monte. abortion is always the one issue they are willing to through under the bus.

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