Sisters Know Best: Why the Senate Might Want to Listen to Catholic Sisters on Health Care

By Jeanine E. Kraybill, PhD, California State University, Bakersfield

American nuns know healthcare and are once again poised to be an influential force in the current debate surrounding the GOP’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  This week over 7,000 Catholic women religious signed a letter to Congress written by Sister Simone Campbell of the Catholic social justice lobby, NETWORK, urging the Senate to seek a bipartisan solution to reform and not repeal the ACA.

The sisters argue their position from a place of policy experience and authority, noting that “Catholic sisters have been serving and healing the people of the United States for almost 300 years.” These sisters are part of a legacy responsible for establishing hundreds of hospitals, nursing homes and clinics nation-wide, along with developing some of the country’s first health insurance plans. Currently, 1 in 6 U.S. hospitals are Catholic hospitals, with nuns at the forefront of their administration.

Despite some groups, such as the ACLU expressing concerns about Catholic medical directives and the impact on patient care, it does not discount that the fact that nuns have long-been at the center of providing needed health services to Americans, amassing a level of policy expertise that understands the industry’s complexities. As a result, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have grown accustom to receiving high-quality, professional healthcare from nuns.

This is not the first time Catholic sisters have publically put themselves into the politics of the healthcare debate. In 2010, Catholic women religious used a similar tactic. Sister Simone Campbell wrote a letter to Congress, signed by 59 leaders of Catholic women religious congregations, expressing their support for the Affordable Care Act. The nuns did this is the face of institutional opposition, as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) opposed to the bill due to their concerns that it did not contain protections to safeguard against the federal funding of abortion.  The nuns’ stance initially garnered scrutiny by the Church, and some argue helped propel the 2012 Doctrinal Assessment against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which also named NETWORK in the indictment (an assessment is issued when a group is considered to be in doctrinal error, and the nuns were rebuked for themes of radical feminism, as well as their silence on homosexuality and abortion).[1] NETWORK successfully leveraged the Assessment and launched the “Nuns on the Bus” tour, publically making the case for affordable healthcare and also speaking out on other social justice related issues.

As a result of the ACA ensuring millions more Americans, the USCCB has changed its position and has since shown support for the legislation. On January 18, 2017, the bishops issued a letter to Congress urging members to preserve healthcare coverage.  The bishops learned that Catholic sisters were in-tune with the needs of Americans on healthcare, as a majority of the public currently approve of the ACA and only 12% support the current Senate Republicans’ plan.

Despite imperfections of the ACA, the bishops learned from the expertise of their fellow Catholic sisters. Sister Simone Campbell and the nuns who signed both letters to Congress are now once again demonstrating how Catholic women religious are powerful players in the healthcare debate.  In a 2016 interview, Sister Simone expressed that she felt their efforts contributed to the ongoing public debate over healthcare.[1This is consistent with others who argue the nuns were pivotal in getting the ACA through Congress.  It is also in-line with President Barack Obama’s comments at the 2015 Catholic Health Association Conference, “We would not have gotten the Affordable Care Act done if it weren’t for her [CEO and President, Sister Carol Keehan].”

Senate Republicans would benefit from listening to these sisters who have much professional experience, education and seemingly more public support on issues pertaining to healthcare.  These sister have been through this fight with Congress before and are now emboldened, as witnessed by the vast increase of signatories to this week’s letter to Congress.

Jeanine E. Kraybill is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Pre Law Advisor at California State University, Bakersfield.  She studies religion and politics, political rhetoric and government institutions.  Currently, she is working on a book for Temple University Press examining the Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and Catholic female leadership in the Church. She is the editor of a forthcoming volume for Lexington Books, titled, Unconventional, Partisan and Polarizing Rhetoric:  How the 2016 Election Shaped the Way Candidates Strategize, Engage and Communicate, where she also contributes a chapter, “Tweeting Religion: The Impact of Religious Language and Rhetoric in the 2016 Presidential Election.”
Jeanine can be contact via Twitter or her personal website.


1. Kraybill, Jeanine. 2016. “Non-Ordained: Examining the Level of Female Religious Political Engagement and Social Policy Influence within the American Catholic Church.” Field Work in Religion 11 (2): 137-156.

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