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Who has the right to be right?

John Allen reports at NCR on the status of the USCCB's dispute with the Catholic Health Association over the latter's support for the health-care-reform bill the bishops opposed. His story includes an interview with the USCCB president, Cardinal Francis George, and the results are discouraging. Allen doesn't have any trouble understanding the CHA's position. The CHA has explained it very plainly, and they do so again in his report:

"We would not have supported the legislation if it were inconsistent with our values as a ministry of the church," said Colleen Scanlon, a lay medical professional and chair of the CHA Board of Trustees, in remarks opening the assembly.The association, she said, "firmly believes that the enacted law meets this fundamental, non-negotiable priority -- no federal funding for abortion."

And Sr. Carol Keehan says, again: "We did not differ on the moral question, or the teaching authority of the bishops." Pretty clear. But Cardinal George still seems confused about the nature of the disagreement.

"This may be a narrow disagreement, but it has exposed a very large principle," [George] said...."If the bishops have a right and a duty to teach that killing the unborn is immoral, they also have to teach that laws which permit and fund abortion are immoral," George said. "It seems that what some people are saying is that the bishops can't, or shouldn't, speak to the moral content of the law, that we should remain on the level of abstract principles."

"Some people" may be saying that, but the CHA most definitely isn't. (That's not what Commonweal has argued, either.) The bishops' "right and teach that laws which permit and fund abortion are immoral" has not been challenged by the CHA -- in fact, it has been endorsed. The CHA (and Commonweal) supported the law because it met the standards set forth by the bishops, in their (our) judgment. In other words, they (we) felt the bishops were wrong about whether the final bill met the standards they had laid out. As has been pointed out many times by now, that difference of opinion about the details of the legislation is not a challenge to the bishops' teaching authority or moral pronouncements. How has this distinction failed to penetrate the defenses of the USCCB?For Mark Silk, the lesson is plain: "So now we know: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops cares more about its authority than being right." The June 18 Commonweal has an editorial on this subject, "Catholic Unity." Like Silk, we noted some conflict between what (some) bishops are saying now and the principles expressed in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Bishop Robert Lynch (of St. Petersburg) seems to have noticed a similar problem:

"I've been associated in one way or another with the episcopal conference of the United States since 1972," said Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla. "I have never before this year heard the theory that we enjoy the same primacy of respect for legislative interpretation as we do for interpretation of the moral law."..."I think this theory needs to be debated and discussed by the body of bishops," he said.

You may recall that Lynch, who sits on the CHA board, found himself awkwardly caught between the USCCB and the CHA back in March. Perhaps he learned from that to examine the conference's claims more closely. Would that his brother bishops might do the same. Cardinal George seems to be holding out hope for "reconciliation" without any concessions on the part of the USCCB:

George said there's an "immediate area" of possible collaboration with the CHA, which is the bishops' desire to insert stronger anti-abortion language, based on the Hyde Amendment, into the new health care law."If we can jointly support that change to the law, it would go a long way to fostering reconciliation," he said.

Perhaps. But the bishops' taking the time to correctly interpret the positions of the CHA and other Catholics who supported the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act would go a lot further to rebuild damaged credibility and trust.


Commenting Guidelines

Very interesting debate. Everybody agrees that the bishops should elaborate on moral principles and Catholics apply those principles to the facts and circumstances on the ground. The issue is that the bishops often go beyond the mere statement of principles and speak about more detailed legislative issues. In itself, that is fine - I certainly think they are right to (say) oppose the Arizona immigration legislation and support S-CHIP. But the right for years have been telling the bishops to butt out of these areas.The problem, as usual, is inconsistency. On war and torture, the bishops spelt out the principles (just war criteria, torture is always wrong) but never went any further. They never said explicitly that the Iraq war was wrong, whereas any reasonable reading of the just war principles would conclude that it was (and to make the affirmative case for war, the likes of Novak and Weigel had to actually distort the principles). They never explicitly condemned the Bush-Cheney torture techniques either.Put it this way: as a prudential matter, the likelihood that the Iraq war was wrong was greater than the likelihood that this healthcare reform will lead to a spike in abortions.

Who is saying that bishops shouldn't teach? Apparently George took another approach in his remarks to the USCCB executive committee.

This quote, from the CNA story Grant just linked to, would suggest that Cardinal George does understand where the difference actually lies -- even as he insists that the issue is bigger than that. (Of course, "equally valid" isn't quite right -- if the CHA thought the bishop's determination that no Catholic could support the PPACA was "valid," they wouldn't have differed from it. "Equally worthy of consideration," perhaps.) I'd like to see the text of his remarks in its entirety...

In that regard, Cardinal George highlighted that the USCCB and CHAs positions on Obamas health care are not just two equally valid conclusions inspired in the same Catholic teaching, and reiterated that what the bishops said on May 21 in their statement Setting the record Straight is and will remain the official position of the USCCB on the contentious issue.

I guess that last line answers our question about to what extent a statement signed by three bishops should be taken to represent the conference as a whole.

MSW over at America blog had a fine piece on Fr. Hehir's recent talk on this and health care issues in Boston.I think he got it right in terms of the complexity.I also think the Cardinal needs to be less defensive about the every words emanating from USCCB.

I can understand Cardinal George's concern that he should be able make publlic statements which relate principles to specific legislation or to any other matter. But let him do it *as an individual* under his own name only, just as Benedic XVI published his recent book on Jesus under the name Joseph Ratzinger. This would result, no doubt in different bishops making different statements, but that's as it should be. But as soon as the whole group pretends to be a semi-council, the Church and society is in trouble.In fact, the American bishops do have a lot of expertise in matters of health care, immigration.. education, etc,, and the country can benefit from their perspectives and considered opinions. But let them speak as individuals.

"One highlight was a video tribute from President Barack Obama, hailing the "help and courage" of the CHA as well as the "extraordinary leadership" of Daughter of Charity Sr. Carol Keehan, CHA president."This is not good for Catholic unity.

"Cardinal George highlighted that the USCCB and CHAs positions on Obamas health care are not just two equally valid conclusions inspired in the same Catholic teaching, "This is true but not to the point. The CHA reads the legislation one way and the USCCB reads it another way. The question is: Whose interpretative reading is correct? Both parties agree on the moral issues. George appeals to episcopal authority as decisive. But episcopal authority does not apply when the question is: What are the provisions of the law? One who appeals to his authority in a sphere to which his authority does not extend tends to lose credibility.

Why not, Jim?

I find it ironic that they are complaining about "Catholic unity" on this issue. Where was the concern for unity when the Catholic right was fighting tooth-and-nail against this reform, on purely ideological grounds? What was so hard about distinguishing between valid and invalid reasons for opposing the bill? By staying silent, they gave cover to the nutty right that has no time for Catholic social teaching.

Since the purpose of the Hyde Amendment, (otherwise referred to as the spirit of the law) is that the United States Government NOT be complicit in the act of intentionally destroying a Human Life, Sr.Carol Keehan should admit she was mistaken. All Government sponsored health care plans that provide the option for purchasing elective abortion coverage remain a government sponsored health care plan even if the elective abortion coverage is purchased with separate funds. In other words, according to the spirit of the law, without the government sponsored healthcare plan to begin with, there would be no option for elective abortion coverage. The Government is complicit in the act of elective abortion by providing the option to purchase elective abortion coverage. It appears that President Obama is on the offence once again.

The thing I have never seen the bishops say:"G.W. Bush divided Catholic unity, and Catholic supported him over the bishops," though that clearly is true, and not just on matters of prudence, but principles. Indeed, one of the big problems is that the way the bishops have read the health care reform, if followed consistently, would ultimately lead someone to say "we must reject the Constitution" because the Constitution itself doesn't forbid abortion!

I remember when Austin Ruse, at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, said GW Bush was The Second Catholic President. Talk about divisive! But no one cared...

The USCCB and Nancy believe Obama's EO is a lie or ruse? So Catholic unity is we must believe Obama is lying too? No... we have the Eucharist and the Creed as signs of Catholic unity. . I also believe tugging forelocks is not part of Catholic unity.

I think this discussion is not being framed correctly. The question is not, "who is right?" That question might be open to debate.The questions are really, "Who gets to speak in the name of the Church? Who gets to say 'this is what Catholics stand for'? " The problem is not that CHA advanced a different opinion. Catholics may personally disagree with any number of things the Church says. But we don't have the right to then step out in public and equate our personal discernment with the Church's. The problem is that CHA either gullibly or complicitly allowed itself to be used as an alternative magisterium by a certain group of politicians who were looking for a way to "Catholic up" their legislation in direct opposition to the stated position of the USCCB. Reasonable people may disagree on whether a certain piece of legislation is better than another piece of legislation, but that's not really the question here. The question is who gets to speak for the Church. Is it, as Bp Lynch's comments suggest, that anyone who is Catholic and attempts to act in good faith has the right to say, "Catholics may believe or do thus-and-such" or is speaking in the name of the Church a responsibility that ultimately lies with the Bishops' ministry to teach, govern, or sanctify?As Cdl George points out to anyone willing to actually listen, the debate is not really about politics. It's about ecclesiology. Let him who has ears...G

Ed, you are mistaken. What I said was, " It appears that President Obama is on the offence again." I suppose he could actually be playing some defence. You decide:

GregActually, we have a right to disagreement, when dealing with prudential reasoning, and a right to declare our disagreement to interpretations of legal documents, without it being a division of church unity. Of course, one must respect the authority of the bishops, but that authority must also be understood for where it lies, and not moved beyond that. We must also remember, the bishops were not united in their interpretation of health care reform, that at least one bishop made public his agreement with the CHA.

Everyone has the right to be right, but no one has the right to manipulate The Truth.

Greg, you are mistaken. Your framework is the one Cardinal George insists on, but it's not actually the relevant question here.

The questions are really, Who gets to speak in the name of the Church? Who gets to say this is what Catholics stand for?

The bishops, of course. That has never been in question for the CHA et al., the ones who say the PPACA is acceptable according to the prolife standards established by the bishops. It is, in fact, the background to the discussion about applying Catholic principles to this particular law.

Re Gregory Popcak's "the question is who gets to speak for the church":The issue here was that of speaking about a piece of civil legislation, a very complex piece of civil legislation.Given the sections of Lumen Gentium about the role of the laity (paragraphs 30 ff), how can the bishops rightly tell Catholic legislators and other informed lay people tha it is somehow an official position of the church that all Catholics ought to oppose the legislation?Bishop Lynch clearly sees something that apparently escapes Cardinal George. If one were consistently to follow Cardinal George's position, then it is hard to see what these sections of Lumen Gentium could possibly mean. On his position, if I'm not mistaken, the laity's competence in such matters can always be set aside whenever the bishops decide to do so.Note that in the case at hand, the health bill does not require that anyone undergo or perform an abortion. The bishops would be right to denounce a bill that required such a thing. Blocking or not blocking access is something else again. That's a matter for civil law to determine, informed by moral principles, but not always enforcing these principle by the force of civil law.

Mollie and Henry, I should have waited for your remarks. I need not have "piled on."

In the area of legislative advocacy, it's not just who gets to speak for the Church, but more importantly, who gets to speak for Catholic voters. I think if the bishops would like to hold out that they speak for American Catholics on political issues, they need to do much more legwork reaching out to the larger Catholic community. No one gets to take my vote for granted, not even my religious leaders; I imagine I'm not alone in feeling this way.

Lumen Gentium:They [the Laity] are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be done in truth, in courage and in prudence, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.The intricacies of heathcare law is an area not within the bishops special expertise. Those members who do have expertise have an obligaiotnto speak out and teach their bishops with reverence and charity. The bishops have ac orrepsonding duty to seriously listen and learn, again with reverence, charity and, I would also suggest, some humility.

The USCCB had about 48 hours to discern the efficacy of the Executive Order, Reveal the who what where of the research done in that time frame.

Molly,Thank you for your comment. But no, I still think its the relevant question. Here's why. Even in light of the quotes from LG, which I strenuously support, when there is a difference of opinion there has to be a body that determine, if not "who's right?" then at least, "what are we going with here?"In a family, there might be a dispute about whether we as a group are going to eat at the Italian place or the Thai place tonight. In a business, there may be several, workable, legitimate proposals, but someone has to say, "this is the public position of the company from this point forward." Everyone has a right to an opinion, but ultimately someone gets to make the call. "The call" isn't necessarily the "right" answer, but it's the answer that, for many different reasons, seem to be more in character with who "we" are at that particular time. That's what this debate is about. When faithful, informed Catholics disagree, who gets to make "the call" for the Catholic family in the public square? And, once "the call" is made, what are the limits that constrain the family members regarding independent action in the name of the family. Does every well-intentioned Catholic get to say, "This is Catholic!" "Yes, and this is too!" "And This!" "And this!" Or, is there a point, on certain important matters, where Catholic Bishops have a right to step in and say, "Thank you for all of your input. Now, this is the direction we've decided to go." and expect the faithful to get on board for the good of the family without being intentionally undermined by these alternative magisteria of the left and right?Or we could just be Anglican. ;-) G

Greg, your example (and your "alternative magisteria" crack) might make sense if we were talking about disagreement on a matter of principle -- e.g., the notion that Catholics should oppose direct federal funding of abortion. But beyond that point, no. The idea that Catholics must have a body to decide "what we're going with here" is not just wrong, it's an anti-Catholic caricature of long standing. If we use your analogy, what we now have is the head of the family deciding that we should have Italian food for dinner, and then ruling that we absolutely cannot eat at Mamma Mia's, the only nearby Italian restaurant, because they don't serve Italian food (regardless of what the menu says). Is the rest of the family obliged to keep mum and go without dinner because Dad doesn't know an Italian restaurant when he sees one?

Greg, to be clear, our personal and public discernment must be consistent with the Catholic Church in regards to Faith and Morals. This means that Catholics must oppose elective abortion.

"Greg, you are mistaken. Your framework is the one Cardinal George insists on"Mollie et al - I'm not certain, at least in the documents we've been shown in this thread, exactly what it is that "Cardinal George insists on".If I may, I'd like to present two poles, both of which I think are incorrect if pushed to the extreme.The episcopal-maximalist pole: "All Catholics should follow the bishops' lead, as though it were a matter of faith and morals, in the political sphere, to the best of their ability."The episcopal-minimalist pole: "Bishops teach moral principles. Legislation encompasses applications of moral principles but is not the same as morality. Bishops have authority to teach the principles, but have no special authority or claim on the interpretation of the moral dimensions of legislation. In fact, there really is nothing wrong with the notion of 'alternative magisteria' if 'magisteria' in this regard is understood as authority to teach on the content of legislation, because (some) non-episcopal Catholics are at least as holy, well-educated and politically astute as the bishops."My impression - and I invite correction if this is not right - is that Commonweal's view, as well as the view of various commenters here, tends toward the epsicopal-minimalist pole.I suspect - and again, invite correction if this is wrong - that a lot of folks here believe that Cardinal Geroge's view tends toward the episcopal-maximalist pole.I'm suggesting that there isn't enough information given in Cardinal George's statements presented here, to assume how close to episcopal-maximalism he comes.(In support of the notion that he is not an episcopal maximalist, I would point to the fact that the bishops and CHA are talking, and that apparently they are sanguine of a good outcome of that talk. Dialoguing is not the same as firing off orders).

"Why not, Jim?"I don't think it's good for the CHA to be perceived as being too aligned with a particular political party or administration.

It is not about minimalist -- the issue is the kind of authority which must be understood; ecclesial authority differs according to the type of issue.

I'm not sure how CH is aligned with a particular party - though in this horriblly partisan country, one might be perceived that way for taking a stand on an issue.I do think Jim is right , viz. lots of folks here are episcopal minimalists (though that sounds like one of the old apologetic categories that can easily be too simplistic) and the Cardinal a maximalist ( as, for example, his desire to bring Catholic universities and periodicals into line with his and the hierachy's thinking on all things.)I also think Greg is confusing an official position with both a final answer and (to borrow a phrase) the Truth from the beginning.Hierarcical credibility will only occur when there is again balance in the church.I don't think you can minimalize or pooh pooh that.Msgr, Harry Byrne notes that in his latest blog post at Archangel summarizes the problem that many see as he talks about (where have I heard the word)"implosion" in the Church.

I dont think its good for the CHA to be perceived as being too aligned with a particular political party or administration.Jim,If the Stupak amendment had succeeded, and the USCCB had continued with their support for health care reform, they would have been working entirely with the Democratic Party. They stood ready to endorse a bill that no Republican would have voted for.

The pro-USCCB posters make the Hyde amendment, that allows abortion to save thw mother. etc etc, sound like the epitome of Catholic doctrine.. Say hello to the Phoenix hospital.

David - the passage in the House of the Stupak amendment was the most (only?) bipartisan moment in the health care slog.

David N - to continue with your (good) point about the USCCB and the Hyde Amendment - suppose that, as everyone originally expected, the House and Senate had gone into conference with their two bills, and the resulting compromise measure had retained the key provisions of the Stupak Amendment, and that this compromise had become law - again, with no Republican support.Had that happened, I would think that both the CHA and the USCCB would have been ok (if not, on the USCCB's part, ecstatic) with the final bill. But yes, you're right, they would have been happy with a hyper-partisan bill.

Bishop Lynch commented that he had never before heard the theory that the bishops "enjoy the same primacy of respect for legislative interpretation " that they "do for interpretation of the moral law" and he added, "I think this theory needs to be debated and discussed by the body of bishops." Fine idea, if the bishops did their homework, gave it their highest priority to understand the nuances of a complex problem, and had Bishop Lynch's brand of courage to speak their minds to each other.

Jim P said: "I dont think its good for the CHA to be perceived as being too aligned with a particular political party or administration."I ask: --- and what about the Catholic bishops? Hearken back to the most recent administration and the current Republican party.Pot? Kettle?

Jim, I am episcopal minimalist as you describe it, if I can make one change to your definition. "Alternative magisteria" exist wherever non-bishops have special expertise in a particular subject. Doctors, plumbers, parents,etc. teach within the bounds of their own competence. Hospital administrators teach, = exercise their magisterium, within the field of administering health care.The bishops have a responsibility to exercise a different kind of magisterium, which is not based on competence but on charism. Fidelity to that gift means keeping the balance between faith and reason by evaluating the expertise of catholics trained in their field. The bishops do not appear to have done that in this instance. They tried, but they overweighted LEGAL opinion against expertise in administering health care, and then blurred the distinctions among those different kinds of 'knowledge'. They fudged their authority on moral issues to make it appear as if they were valid guides on legal interpretation and medical administration.

Here's another question--what sort of professional advice should bishops seek when they attempt to influence the flock on mixed questions of facts and morals? Why not get two or three independent law firms to produce white papers?

"Why not get two or three independent law firms to produce white papers."Because many, not all, law firms do not understand The Spirit of The Law or The Constitution, which would only lead to more mixed questions in regards to questions of Faith and Morals.

for example, to say that the Constitution does not forbid abortion, is to say that the Constitution does not protect our fundamental Right to Life.

Nancy ==You might appreciate these words of wisdom from Daniel Patrick Moynihan:"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."Principles, facts, hypotheses, explanations, opinions. We really must be careful to distinguish them.

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, fact or fiction?

Cathleen, a question. Suppose bishops got the sort of advice you suggest. Then what? Ought they to claim that, having gotten advice, they "speak for the church" and therefore can tell Catholic legislators what they are obliged to do if they are to be good Catholics? I doubt that you mean this, but I can't presume to speak for you.

Nancy --Those words are from the Declaration of Independence, not the U. S. Cont\stitution. Since when does Thomas Jefferson and/or the founding fathers have the status of Catholic bishops?

Jim, I lean toward episcopal minimalism, but I don't suggest that there is any alternative "magisterium" constituted by lay people. We lay people have our own spheres of competence, but they are always spheres of fallibility. So, when I agree with the Catholic Health Association's assessment of the health care bill, I'm not proposing an "alternative magisterial interpretation." I'm just saying that so far as I can tell, its position makes more sense than what the bishops have said. If you will, I am denying that there is anything "magesterial" about the bishops statements in the health care debate, but that does not imply that i would be claiming anything "magisterial" for the CHA posotion that I endorse.By the way, lots of serious thinkers--I don't include myself in that number-- have fretted about a Roman tendency to extend claims about infallibility too broadly. Cardinal Newman certainly was one of these thinkers.

Let's not lose Joe McFaul's excellent contribution on competencies. In my opinion, Cardinal George is smarting because CHA made more reasonable arguments in support of universal health care without compromising the Church's position on abortion and were able in the end to guarantee both, whereas the bishops were willing to sacrifice universal health care for the sake of a misunderstanding of what the health care bill was about. They are embarrassed to have been outmaneuvered by the laity in bringing about both goals they had publicly declared to be their own, when they were really only interested in defeating universal health care. They chose to ally themselves with Republicans and their base rather than with their own people who had a better grasp of the issues and the bill itself, and who never sold out the poor they way they were willing to do. They should be ashamed. but they should admit their mistake and move on for the sake of Catholic unity. I think it is George who is being devisive and not CHA.

Bernard:From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:Christ . . . fulfills this prophetic office, not only by the hierarchy . . . but also by the laity. He accordingly both establishes them as witnesses and provides them with the sense of the faith [sensus fidei] and the grace of the word.CHA was not establishing an alternative magisterium they expressed the sensus fidelium in the magisterial vacuum created by the bishops on this matter.

To paraphrase one of the points in an article by Fr. Joe K. called Authority and Conversion or: the Limits of Authority: Authority is an exercise of power and is also a social relationship between two parties with a common interest. Legitimate authority rests on more than the exercise of mere compulsion; it rests on the acknowledgment of the parties that one has the ability to contribute something that the other cannot. The party accepting the authority trusts that the other has the capacity to make the contribution and thus freely recognizes that partys authority. For example, university students typically trust that their professors are providing accurate information and do not fact check every detail. If there is a credibility gap, if there is an unwillingness to display sources or data, or to argue coherenly, authority is compromised because there is no trustworthiness.I think the bishops are trying to claim an authority by right of office that they have not earned by their actions.

Someone said the bishops have their authority because of their charism, not because of their competence.Something seems very, very wrong with this. If there is no competence, there is no trust and there *should* be trust. So my question is: exactly what is this charism of a bishop as bishop? What are the relationships between charism. authority and competence? I find these words "charism", 'authority", and above all "magisterium" to be quite cloudy as used by the bishops and theologians. The bishops' charism seems to be a kind of teaching function for the good of the Church, but what sort of teaching function and how is it related to competence? The phrase "the magisterium" (singular) is usually used and it thus implies there is only one, but history tells us that there have been many different teachings.Last comment: to what degree should there be a unity of belief in the Church? If the Church is indeed a family (metaphorically, of course), then, as happens in strong families, the members will often disagree but will learn from each other. The premium put on unity by some Catholics can be a straight-jacket.

"and to secure these Rights, governments are instituted by Men, a.k.a., The Constitution, fact or fiction?The Church is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic...From the CCC: "In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own positions of teaching authority." CCC,no.77