The Limits of Authority: When Bishops Speak about Health-Care Policy, Catholics Don't Have to Agree

Article excerpt

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.

One of the most overlooked contributions of the Second Vatican Council was its theology of Christian mission. The council taught that the church was "missionary by her very nature" (Ad gentes, 2). The church realized its mission by being a "universal sacrament of salvation" (Lumen gentium, 48) and a "leaven in the world" (Gaudium et spes, 40). No longer would the church be content to denounce the evils of the world from the lofty parapets of its ecclesial fortress. Now the church would fulfill its mission in a generous yet critical dialogue and constructive collaboration with all humanity. The council exemplified a genuine humility in asserting that even as it offered to the world the gift of Christ and the proclamation of the in-breaking of God's reign, it did not possess clear answers to every pressing human question.

  The church guards the heritage of God's word and draws from it moral
  and religious principles without always having at hand the solution
  to particular problems. As such she desires to add the light of
  revealed truth to mankind's store of experience, so that the path
  which humanity has taken in recent times will not be a dark one.
  (Gaudium et spes, 33)

Here was a vision of the church cooperating with all humankind in confronting the most pressing challenges of the age. This cooperation was the responsibility of all Christians who, by virtue of their baptism, were charged with proclaiming the reign of God in word and deed. But it was the special responsibility of the laity, who are typically more immersed in worldly affairs:

  Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their
  well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is
  inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look
  for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that
  his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which
  arises, however complicated, they can readily give a concrete
  solution, or even that such is their mission. (Gaudium et spes, 43)

The council called for the laity to be courageous in bringing their faith to bear on every aspect of their daily lives, including the public order. It follows that Christians should fulfill the responsibilities of their citizenship by drawing on the insights of their faith in their discernment about which candidates for public office to support and which public-policy initiatives to advocate.

The council bishops were surprisingly realistic about the complexity of this task and recognized in the same article that "often enough the Christian view of things will itself suggest some specific solution in certain circumstances. Yet it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter. …