When Bishops Meet

The agenda of the November 16-19 General Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops takes up a number of hotly contested issues, including a pastoral letter on marriage and revised ethical guidelines regarding the medical provision of hydration and nutrition to patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS).

Marriage is, of course, a fundamental social institution, one recognized to be under great stress in the highly individualistic and sexually “emancipated” Western world. The Catholic moral and sacramental tradition, with the high value it places on sexual love, lifelong fidelity, family, and children, has much to contribute to any critique of contemporary sexual confusion and marital failure. But if the bishops want to be heard by those preparing to marry, or by those already married, they cannot begin the conversation with an indictment of those they hope to influence. A leaked draft of the pastoral letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” has already been criticized for its didactic, abstract, and unimaginative reiteration of church teaching regarding the “intrinsic evils” of contraception and cohabitation, the supposedly dire threat posed by same-sex marriage, and the immorality of technological remedies for infertility such as in vitro fertilization. Characterizing the sexual lives of Catholics who remain unconvinced by the church’s teaching on contraception as “dehumanized” and “degraded” is unlikely to gain for the bishops the ear of the laity.

As the letter itself notes, many Catholic couples who marry in the church will have cohabited and used contraception. There is no evidence to suggest that greater forcefulness in presenting the church’s condemnation of those practices will significantly alter such behavior. A different approach is needed. “When the emphatic and repeated teaching...about key issues of sexual ethics falls on deaf ears and is widely rejected,” the late Cardinal Avery Dulles wrote twenty-five years after Humanae vitae, “the church ceases to appear in the world as a sign of unity.” Dulles went on to say that “as long as the overwhelming majority of laypeople are at odds with the hierarchy on the question of birth control, the process of consultation on marriage and family life will be gravely inhibited. The magisterium will find itself driven into an isolated clerical world.” The draft of the bishops’ letter confirms Dulles’s judgment.

Equally disappointing is the revised language to be approved by the bishops for directive no. 58 in the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.” In essence, the new language makes it morally obligatory, barring medical complications, to provide medically assisted nutrition and hydration to patients in a persistent vegetative state, such as Terri Schiavo. This appears to mean that in many cases advance directives from patients, instructing caregivers in Catholic facilities to discontinue artificial nutrition and hydration when there is no hope of recovery from a catastrophic neurological injury, will no longer be honored. That is a significant change in the church’s traditional teaching regarding what constitutes ordinary and therefore obligatory care and what is understood to be extraordinary and possibly burdensome medical treatment. The medical and moral issues involved in prolonging the lives of PVS patients are complex, and people of goodwill can be found on both sides of the debate. One great worry about the new language in the directive was that it might lead Catholics to think that, whenever possible, patients must die with a feeding tube in place (see “Undue Burden?” the Consortium of Jesuit Bioethics Programs, February 13). Thanks to the efforts of many in the Catholic medical and bioethical community, the proposed new language avoids at least that pitfall.

It will be interesting to see if the bishops’ conference follows the lead of the California bishops and issues a statement of support for U.S. women’s religious communities now under investigation by the Vatican. Few Vatican initiatives have been greeted with more incredulity and even anger by Catholics in the pews than the current “visitation” and “doctrinal assessment” of American nuns. The more one learns about the Vatican’s actions, the more alienating they appear. Cardinal Franc Rodé, who heads the Vatican congregation conducting the “visitation,” has declared that “a certain feminist spirit” is at the root of the alleged problems in women’s religious orders. He apparently became convinced of this after participating in a conference at Stonehill College where he heard speakers denounce “progressive religious” and urge bishops to confront the “radical feminism” of U.S. nuns.

Is feminism incompatible with a vowed religious life? As most bishops know, that depends on what kind of feminism you’re talking about and which nuns you’re talking to.

November 10, 2009

Published in the 2009-11-20 issue: 
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