Episcopal teaching and federal legislation

by Tom Roberts

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Cardinal Francis George of Chicago is given high marks, we are told, for his ability to achieve consensus among competing interests of fellow bishop members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholics can be grateful for any steps toward unity in a divided church.

Those skills, however, are rarely on display when George takes to the public stump, and his final speech as president of the conference was a particularly curious rehash of an old debate and a speech during which he made what appears to be an alarming claim.

According to a CNS story, George struck out once again at those who dared defy the bishops in their opposition to health care reform, terming the debate a “wound to the church’s unity.” He was referring, of course, to the public support for reform provided by the Catholic Health Association and by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. More than a few legislators, Catholics among them, have said that the support by the CHA and the nuns was critical to passage of the reform.

George said the debate fuzzied up the question of “who speaks for the church.” He followed with the assertion that it is the bishops who speak for the church “in matters of faith and in moral issues and the laws surrounding them.” It wasn’t crystal clear whether he meant in that instance church laws or civil laws, but the context would suggest the latter. We’ve heard of “creeping infallible-ism” but this would represent an absurd stretch.

Those responsible for causing the wound to the church’s unity, in George’s estimation, were those who disagreed with some bishops’ reading of a complex piece of legislation. Those who disagreed included the Catholic Health Association, which deals regularly with legislators, legislation and the demands of real patients in actual hospitals – in a phrase, the health care system that was so desperately in need of reform.

George dusts that all aside as “opinion, often well-considered opinion and important opinion that deserves a careful and respectful hearing, but still opinion.” Would he mean opinion as different from ... teaching? Are we to infer from his words that the bishops’ opinion on the nuances of a piece of legislation is now something more than opinion? Are we to understand that such opinion has been elevated now to the level of church teaching?

In the real world, the constraints on federal funding of abortion were tested, in Pennsylvania, shortly after the legislation passed. Within hours the administration gave notice, loudly and unequivocally, that the executive order signed by President Obama prohibited the use of any federal funds for procurement of abortion.

Some bishops in private will allow as how their authority and credibility has been battered in recent years, often because of the actions of bishops themselves. Extending teaching authority to interpretations of federal legislation is hardly the way to restore either credibility or legitimate authority. If George really wants to find a way to “restore the seamless garment of ecclesial communion,” he might begin by considering the possibility that the blame for disunity does not lie solely outside the hierarchical circle.

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