Thousands of U.S. women religious have just staked their public credibility in the cause of health care reform, during one of the most polarized civic debates in decades. These women with a vow of poverty had riches to spend: public trust accumulated since the Middle Ages, when European orders of women and men risked their lives to treat victims of the plague. Later, congregations like the Daughters of Charity and the Sisters of Mercy built hospitals in the United States to serve the poor, refugees and immigrants. Catholic sisters tended the wounded during the Civil War and nursed the pioneers—all for the love of Christ at pittance wages.
Gradually, they built the largest number of not-for-profit health facilities in the nation: an extensive network of clinics, hospitals, home health programs and facilities for assisted living, long-term and hospice care. The Catholic Health Association of the United States currently represents 600 Catholic hospitals and 1,400 nursing homes.
The Catholic Health Association, whose membership is made up largely of religious congregations of women and their institutions, exercised substantial leverage in the recent health care debate. Carol Keehan, D.C., as president and chief executive officer, expressed the association’s position with civility and candor. “We urge Congress to continue its work toward the goal of health reform that protects life at all stages, while expanding coverage to the greatest possible number of people in our country,” she said in January. As Congress prepared to vote on the final bill, the C.H.A. was joined in its support of the reform by the heads of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and more than four dozen U.S. congregations of women.
The sisters entered the fray burdened, like an athlete at the Olympics with family problems on her mind. First, their communities have been the focus of an ongoing Vatican investigation, the purpose of which has never been fully explained. That troubling circumstance alone might have paralyzed less committed advocates. Second, toward the end of the legislative process, the sisters found themselves holding a different view from that of the U.S. Catholic bishops on a matter of prudential judgment concerning possible loopholes for federal funding of abortion resulting from the bill.
Although some opponents publicly dismissed the sisters’ view, the women religious in health ministry have earned special standing on this issue. They built the hospitals, tended the sick, midwifed the newborns, sat with the suffering and calmed the dying. As for the sisters in other ministries, they wrote to Congress: “We have counseled and prayed with men, women and children who have been denied health care coverage by insurance companies. We have witnessed early and avoidable deaths because of delayed medical treatment.” The sisters demonstrated leadership of a high order. The church’s credibility in public advocacy on health issues has always rested on their service—especially to women, children, the sick, the poor and the uninsured—and it continues to do so today. That record of service gave them a right to speak out.
Ironically, the U.S. sisters’ civic leadership on health care reform marks a climax in their own history: a display of strength when the sisters are becoming aged and their numbers are decreasing. Today the church in the United States needs more young women, moved by the Spirit, to join religious life. A new generation of religious women still has a vital role to play in the flourishing of Catholic life in the United States. Their lifelong witness of prayer and service is needed to energize Catholic health care, Catholic education and Catholic justice ministry. They can be pioneers in the 21st century as their predecessors were in the 19th.
In addition, more lay movements with a charism for healing ministry are needed, and more lay health professionals committed to sponsoring Catholic health institutions, especially those affiliated with the sisters’ congregations, can build on what the sisters have established—in hospice care, in prevention programs, in helping seniors (and others) navigate increasingly complex health systems, and in sustaining the nonprofit model of quality care driven by the compassion of Jesus the healer.
The sisters’ extraordinary witness illustrates how huge a gap would be left were their numbers not replenished or their work not taken up by others. For the civic muscle the sisters brought to bear is a result of their lives of prayer, discipline and vows kept daily in service to the church. They have shown how powerful and authoritative Christian communities can be when they build credible institutions that serve the common good. If there was ever any doubt about the relevance of women religious to contemporary American life, the sisters’ role in health care should dispel it.