Health care the highlight of annual Bernardin lectures

Sister Carol Keehan, DC, presents “21st Century Health Care Challenges and Catholic Hospitals” at the 11th annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Lecture Oct. 7 in Columbia. (Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss)

Sister Carol Keehan, DC, presents “21st Century Health Care Challenges and Catholic Hospitals” at the 11th annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Lecture Oct. 7 in Columbia. (Miscellany/Christina Lee Knauss)COLUMBIA—The ethical challenges facing Catholic health care providers were the focus of the 11th annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Lecture, held at the University of South Carolina on Oct. 7.

Sister Carol Keehan, CEO and president of the Catholic Health Association of the United States, presented a lecture on “21st Century Health Care Challenges and Catholic Hospitals.”

The Daughter of Charity sister was embroiled in a controversy earlier this year after members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticized her and other members of the CHA for supporting the health care bill which was signed into law in March.

Both sides have debated the exact implications of the bill’s language on abortion funding, and the effectiveness of a subsequent executive order by President Obama, which continues current bans on federal funding for abortion.

Sister Carol said the CHA’s support of the health care bill came after careful consideration of issues, including what the association believed to be unsustainable growth in medical costs and the devastation that lack of insurance and loss of benefits brings when a person is faced with a serious illness.

She said the challenges facing Catholic health providers have changed dramatically in recent decades, and cited statistics that show the radical changes in the past 42 years, including a decline in the number of Catholic hospitals from 796 nationwide to 620. Also, the majority of those hospitals are no longer operated by religious orders.

Sister Carol said these changes present challenges, but also give people a unique role in promoting Catholic values and the Gospel through their work.

She gave an outline of the process leading up to the health care legislation, and said she and other members of the CHA believe that the legislation as it is written prevents federal funds from being used for abortion.

“We supported the bill because it would give 32 million people health care who otherwise wouldn’t have it,” Sister Carol said. “We felt like we had to support the bill because so many people were depending on it.”

During the evening session, Jesuit Father John Langan spoke on “Ethical Vision and Political Considerations: The Continuing Relevance of Cardinal Bernardin.” Father Langan is the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University.

He said abortion is one of the biggest issues being debated in national politics these days, and the challenge for Catholics is to promote pro-life teachings in a way that also reflects the compassion Jesus showed to everyone He encountered.

The priest’s talk focused on how Catholic bishops and other leaders have handled difficult issues, such as the nuclear arms race during the cold war, and said the same challenges confront both church hierarchy and the people in the pews today.

“Conviction and commitment is needed, and also civility,” he said.

He talked about the usefulness of Cardinal Bernardin’s seamless-garment approach to developing a consistent ethic of life for the church. The theory included respect for life from birth to death and involved many social justice issues, including abortion.

Father Langan said that ethic has fallen by the wayside in some cases when religious leaders focus only on the evil of abortion, at the expense of addressing other injustices or evils in society.

He said one of the most effective ways for the church to prevent abortion is to focus on addressing the needs of women and children, specifically on societal factors and the moral judgments that may lead a woman to seek an abortion, rather than having an attitude of condemnation and punishment.

“We should be wary of quick and easy ways to resolve moral dilemmas,” he said. “The scope of moral discussion needs to be widened. The meaning and mystery of the church and our membership in it is not captured by one issue. We should not be looking for ways to make the circle of those concerned for women and children smaller and more divided.

“We have to be attentive to the fears and pains of women. This is where the concern over abortion should lead to much broader concern for social justice issues,” Father Langan said.

Sister Judith Ann Karam, president and CEO of Sisters of Charity Health System, offered remarks after Father Langan’s speech.

She said Catholic health care providers are faced with the daunting challenge of preserving the integrity of Catholic teaching and promoting life while also providing top-notch, cost effective medical service.

“The major concern Cardinal Bernardin had was that health care was commercializing itself,” she said. “Health care, he believed, is inherent to the dignity of the human person … in Catholic health care, we are to be about the healing mission of Jesus. Our goal is to live our faith, and bring hope in a loving God to others.”