Who speaks for the church came up both as an action item for the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and in Cardinal Francis George’s final address as U.S.C.C.B. president. The bishops will be deciding tomorrow on a proposal to reassess levels of authority of church statements and procedures for their release, and in his introductory presentation to the bishops assembled in Baltimore Nov. 15, Cardinal George revisited the painful “wound to church unity” that opened up over health care reform in March. Whether or not the health reform legislation supported by most Democrats and President Obama technically included federal subsidies for abortion was the breaking point last spring between the bishops and the Catholic Health Association, which was in turn supported by Network and the Leadership Council of Women Religious.
Emphasizing the church’s continuing support for health care for all as a “moral imperative,” Cardinal George said, “Universal health care can be delivered using many means: everything publicly funded, everything privately funded or a mixture of the two. Any of these solutions could be moral, and it is up to lay people to decide which are the best means to see to it that everyone is cared for.
“As teachers of the faith,” however, it was the bishop’s moral call, he said, “to judge whether the means passed moral muster, whether or not the proposed legislation used public funds to kill those living in their mother’s womb.”
Cardinal George called the challenge created by the March breakdown of unity on health care a threefold problem for the U.S. church: empirically, does the legislation permit the funding of abortion beyond Hyde amendment restrictions; ecclesiologically, “who speaks for the Catholic church?”; and practically, “how should faithful Catholics approach political issues that are also moral?” In terms of the second concern, it was pretty clear that the cardinal did not appreciate the 11th hour intrusion of women religious and Catholic laypeople who supported the health care reform package in the debate over its moral validity. “We speak for the apostolic faith and those who hold it gather round. We must listen to the sensus fidei…but this is different from intellectual trends and public opinion.
“The bishops ... speak for the church in matters of faith and in moral issues and the laws surrounding them," the cardinal said. "All the rest is opinion, often well-considered opinion and important opinion that deserves a careful and respectful hearing, but still opinion."
During the assembly’s opening address, Cardinal George reasserted the bishop’s charges about the health care reform package, which was approved by Congress March 19. He insisted that the health care reform removed Hyde amendment barriers to the use of federal money to pay for abortion, repeating the bishops’ rejection of independent analysis that suggests otherwise and President Obama’s executive orders that explicitly prohibit the use of federal money for abortion.
“Lay people who carefully analyzed the contents of this legislation as it was being tortuously being crafted freed us, the bishops, to make the necessary moral judgments,” he said. “Some have protested that the legislation is complicated and we therefore shouldn’t pretend to judge it….this implies that no one can understand or judge complicated pieces of legislation…or it is to say that only bishops are too dense to understand complicated pieces of legislation,” a proposition that he allowed could be understandable, eliciting a rare chuckle from the assembled bishops.
But developments since the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, he charged, “have settled the empirical issue: our analysis of what the law itself says was correct and our moral judgments are secure.” The cardinal did not elaborate on what developments he was referring to.
The debate, Cardinal George said, eventually demonstrated that “there were those who started with the faith in its integrity and fit their political choices into the context of the fullness of the church’s teaching, and there were those for whom a political choice, even a good choice, was basic and the church was judged useful by whether or not she provided foot soldiers for a political commitment, whether of the left or the right.”
Cardinal George said the “public discussion in the church that we are called by Christ to govern will continue, even as we strive to keep everyone together in Christ with the authority given us by him. The tensions, while acute, are not completely novel….Perhaps we are living now a moment when, at last, Dorothy Day meets John Courtney Murray.”