Related: Civil & Human Rights, Living, Politics, Religion, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues, Women's Leadership

Rock Stars and Activists for Justice


pat alexia carol_edited-1 (Medium)(Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association with Alexia Kelley, director of the Office of Faith Based Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Yours Truly)

Sister Carol Keehan, Daughter of Charity, president of the Catholic Health Association, got a standing ovation in O’Connor Auditorium last Friday morning.   Later that same day, the standing O went to Sister Simone Campbell of NETWORK.   Meanwhile, USA Today hailed nuns as “rock stars” and notable speakers from Nancy Pelosi to E.J. Dionne sung the praises of religious women.

The occasion for this resounding recognition of the couragous leadership of Catholic religious women was a two-day conference that Trinity co-sponsored with the National Catholic Reporter, “A Washington Briefing for the Nation’s Catholic Community.” The conference brought together Catholic politicians from both sides of the aisle along with pundits, pollsters, diplomats, corporate leaders, scholars and activists.   The purpose was to explore, discuss and debate the critical issues of law and public policy that are of vital interest to Catholics who seek ways to live our faith’s call to action in the public square.

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(Conference attendees give standing ovation to Sr. Carol Keehan)

The standing ovations and loudest cheers were for the sisters whose support for healthcare reform made a critical difference in the final days of the Congressional debate.

NCR Reporter Michael Sean Winters described the applause for Sr. Carol Keehan:

“That applause came from somewhere deep in the consciousness of the assembled Catholics, all of whom share a commitment to the Church’s social justice traditions and teaching. It came from the years of frustration as successive presidents failed to find the political calculus needed to enact universal health coverage. It came, most especially, from the recognition that we almost encountered another chapter in that catalogue of frustration. But, at the last minute, Sister Carol, with that counter-cultural combination of a wealth of knowledge and experience and the unique authenticity of one who has chosen poverty, provided the moral push that pushed health care reform across the finish line.”

Sr. Carol’s decision to back the healthcare bill came only after she was convinced that the bill would not provide public funding for abortion.   Her analysis of the legislation differed from the position of the U.S. bishops, and as a result, she has earned criticism as well as praise.  However, she adamantly repeated her opposition to abortion during the conference, and also adamantly repeated her support for the legislation as not perfect, but “a good first step.”

Sr. Carol knows a few things about health care, having served for many years as president and CEO of Providence Hospital here in northeast Washington where generations of Trinity students and Sisters of Notre Dame have received excellent care.

Her position on the healthcare legislation received strong support from fellow panelist James Roosevelt, Jr. president of Tufts Health Plan (and, yes, grandson of Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt).   Speaking with the authority of someone who knows history perhaps more cogently than most, Roosevelt told the conferees that,  “The passage of health reform was an achievement for social justice of the magnitude of the passage of Medicare  and Social Security.”

keehan roosevelt 2_edited-1 (Large)(Sr.  Carol Keehan and James Roosevelt, Jr.)

On the previous afternoon, the conference participants traveled to Capitol Hill where Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi addressed the importance of faith in her life each day, particularly in emphasizing the need to care for children and “the least among us” though she also made the point that we should not consider other human beings as “the least.”  She took the occasion to call upon the U.S.  bishops to strengthen the urgency of their work on behalf of  immigration reform.   Members of the House and Senate also stopped by to share thoughts on faith in public life, including Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey, Virginia Congressman Gerald Connolly, among others.

Other notable conference speakers included Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, Washington Post Columnist E.J. Dionne, National Catholic Reporter Columnist John Allen, George Mason Law Professor Helen Alvare, and former Vatican Ambassadors Thomas Melady and James Nicholson.   Pollster John Zogby made a presentation about recent data on the views of Catholics on political and religious issues.

pwo_edited-1 (Large)(Washington Catholic Schools Superintendent Patty Weitzel-O’Neill)

Archdiocese of Washington Superintendent of Catholic Schools Dr. Patricia Weitzel-O’Neill spoke about the challenges facing Catholic education.   She is a former member of Trinity’s faculty and former academic vice president here, so it was a special pleasure to welcome Patty back to Trinity.

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The intensive two-day gathering concluded with Sr. Simone Campbell of NETWORK, the Catholic social justice lobby, addressing issues in immigration reform.   It was NETWORK in conjunction with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious who organized a letter to Congress supporting healthcare from the heads of religious orders representing 59,000 religious sisters.    That letter, backing Sr. Carol Keehan’s stance, carried great weight in the closing days of the health care debate.

simone_edited-1(NETWORK President Sr. Simone Campbell)

Sr. Simone reminded us, however, that the cause of justice continues.   Even as it will take years to know the full impact of health care reform, other issues demand attention, notably, the increasingly hostile legal and social conditions for immigrants.   While most people in Washington agree that there is little political willpower to take on another contentious issue this year, the issue of immigration reform should be high on the Catholic agenda since it goes to the heart of the social justice teachings.

E.J. Dionne said it all:  “Listen to the Nuns” It’s always worked for me!

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: