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 duty...to 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.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

Also by this author
The Catholic voter, one more time

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads