The Limits of Authority

When bishops speak about health-care policy, Catholics should listen, but don't have to agree

The aftershocks of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ opposition to certain elements of recent health-care legislation are still being felt in the church months later. Religious communities that supported the legislation are being subjected to harsh and unwarranted punitive measures and the Catholic Health Association, whose support of the legislation was crucial to its passage, is being maligned by right-wing groups like the Catholic News Agency.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, current president of the USCCB, contends that the dispute is fundamentally a matter of ecclesiological principle. In a recent interview with John Allen, the cardinal said that the disagreement with the Catholic Health Association over health-care legislation was “about the nature of the church itself” and was therefore a disagreement “that has to concern the bishops.” This was a disagreement about the nature, limits, and proper exercise of episcopal authority. But there is a second, closely related matter at stake—namely, the character of Christian participation in public life. It may be helpful to begin there.

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About the Author

Richard R. Gaillardetz is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. His books include: Keys to the Council:  Unlocking the Teaching of Vatican II (co-authored with Catherine Clifford, Liturgical Press, 2012), When the Magisterium Intervenes (editor, Liturgical Press, 2012), Ecclesiology for a Global Church:  A People Called and Sent (Orbis, 2008) and The Church in the Making (Paulist, 2006).