'Authentic Teachers' of the Faith

In light of the recent HHS mandate debate, March 11 issue editorial on the bishops' authority to speak for the Church.

These are strange, even surreal, times, as Bishop William Lori observed during his Feb. 27 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee (see front page). “Ever since the [HHS contraception] mandate has been announced, fair is foul, and foul is fair,” Bishop Lori, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, told the House committee.

“‘Choice’ suddenly means ‘force,’” he added, expressing frustration with the partisan characterization of the bishops’ position as an attempt to bar access to contraception. “This is not a matter of whether contraception may be prohibited by the government. ... Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs.”

President Obama’s contraception-mandate dispute has become fodder for abortion-rights groups now fighting a rearguard effort to shore up public support for their cause. But it has also exposed long-simmering internal dissent against Catholic teaching on faith and morals.

Thus, a church-state debate has morphed into a fifth column effort by self-identified “Catholics” to ally with a hostile administration against appointed Church leaders.

“You may not do evil that good may come of it.” The Church’s consistent teaching on moral absolutes was rejected a half century ago when many Catholics chose to use birth control after Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. Then, as now, the faithful were led astray by theologians and other prominent Catholics who rejected the teaching authority of the Pope. Some would go on to oppose Catholic moral teaching on abortion, euthanasia and embryo-killing stem-cell research.

Today, these divisions are in plain sight. Faithful Catholics flinch as the bishops struggle to defend the free exercise of Catholic institutions, while hostile political forces cite the opposing position of self-appointed Catholic spokesmen and women like Daughter of Charity Sister Carol Keehan. (See related story on page one.)

Now, as abortion advocates and their allies on Capitol Hill seek to bring down their primary adversary, we witness some Catholic women religious, who inherited an institutional ministry to the sick and needy, seeming to disavow this distinctive, even countercultural religious mission as unjust to the poor or to women. Why did they accept responsibility for these institutions if they reject the religious and moral principles on which they were founded?

In a Feb. 26 column, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago noted the bishops’ distinctive role as teachers of faith and morals: “The bishops of the Church make no attempt to speak for all Catholics; they never have. The bishops speak for the Catholic and apostolic faith, and those that hold that faith gather around them. Others disperse.”

The Catechism states that “the Roman Pontiff and the bishops are ‘authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice’” (2034).

While some prominent Catholics dispute the bishops’ rejection of the Health and Human Services mandate and subsequent “accommodation” by the president, they do not hold ultimate responsibility for securing the religious identity of these Church-affiliated institutions, and thus should submit to the bishops’ judgment and keep silent.

Instead, they have thrown their lot with the partisan enemies of religious freedom, attacking one of the central legacies of the Church in America. As George Weigel wrote in a Feb. 28 column, “The most significant contribution to the universal Church of pre-conciliar liberal Catholicism in America was the development of a Catholic theory of religious freedom — which led, in due course, to Vatican II’s epic Declaration on Religious Freedom.”

Today, Weigel charges, the spectacle of Catholics providing “political cover to a gross infringement on religious freedom by a federal government … is a grave breach of ecclesial communion in itself. It also represents a tragic betrayal of the best in the liberal Catholic heritage in the U.S., even as it illustrates the utter incoherence into which post-conciliar liberal Catholicism in America has tragically fallen.”