Right way, wrong way, USCCB way


So now we know: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops cares more about its authority than being right. That’s the clear import of a fine piece of reporting by NCR’s John Allen on the split between the USCCB and the Catholic Hospital Association (CHA) over the health care bill (which, you’ll recall, the former opposed and the latter supported).

Writing from the CHA’s annual meeting in Denver, Allen got Cardinal Francis George, the USCCB’s current capo, on the phone from St. Petersburg, where the bishops are assembled in semi-annual conclave. The cardinal allowed as how the substance of the bill was subject to different interpretations: “different lawyers have said different things.” The core issue, he insisted, was “about the nature of the church
itself, one that has to concern the bishops.” As in: “The bishops have to protect their role in governing the church…”This may be a narrow disagreement, but it has exposed a very large

In other words, never mind that faithful and knowledgeable Catholic organizations and officials might actually do a better job of applying agreed-upon doctrines of faith and morals to a complex piece of legislation than we do. It’s our way or the highway.

Amazingly, Allen managed to find one bishop who begged to differ. “I’ve been associated in one way or another with the episcopal
conference of the United States since 1972,” St. Pete Bishop Robert Lynch told him. “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,” said Lynch, who sits on the CHA’s Board of Trustees.

I wouldn’t hold my breath for an open debate. But I also wouldn’t be surprised if a fair number of bishops feel that the USCCB got way too deep into the legislative weeds on health care, and that there needs to be room–in line with the principles of conscience laid out in their own document on political choice, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship–for honest disagreement among those officially identified with the church.

In the meantime, it’s worth bearing in mind that the USCCB has no authority to bind a single American bishop to its opinions. So let’s suppose that one of them–Bishop Lynch, say–had decided to dissent from the party line and embrace the CHA’s position on the health care bill (just as a few conservative bishops dissented from Faithful Citizenship). Would that have meant, under the George Theory of Episcopal Governance, that all Catholic institutions and officials in the Diocese of St. Petersburg had to support the bill too?