Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), in an interview last week agreed that the rift over the federal health care bill between the bishops and the Catholic Health Association (CHA) exposed a major question concerning who speaks for the Church.
The cardinal’s recorded comments echo other reports. Last week, episcopal sources, who requested anonymity, told CNA that the cardinal lamented the rise of a “parallel magisterium” in the health care debate and blamed CHA and other groups for the passage of the bill.
On Tuesday, Vatican expert John L. Allen published the full text of his June 16 interview with Cardinal George on the blog of the National Catholic Reporter’s website.
The cardinal noted the difference of opinion over the actual content of the health care legislation, saying supporters of the health care legislation have not answered USCCB counsel Anthony Picarello’s objections to its treatment of abortion funding.
“What worries me more than a difference over empirical content, however, is the claim that the bishops cannot speak to the moral content of the law,” the cardinal told Allen. “That seems to be what the CHA has said, though I’d be happy to be proven wrong.”
Later in the interview, Allen asked: “From your point of view, is this ultimately an ecclesiological question – who speaks for the Church?”
“Yes, exactly,” Cardinal George replied. “Our disagreement may be narrow, but it’s a narrow difference that has exposed a very large principle. It affects the nature of the church, and therefore it has to concern the bishops.”
The prelate said he had written to CHA president Sr. Carol Keehan, reporting that he wants “to try to reshape the relationship in dialogue together.”
“As part of that conversation, we have to clarify the claims being made, primarily on this question of our role in assessing the moral quality of law, because it affects every area we touch on,” he continued, noting the question’s relevance to the immigration debate.
“Are we supposed to just say that the present situation is morally unjustified, or do we have the right and the duty to make moral judgments about whatever legislation comes down the line?”
At one point in the interview, he invoked the example of Blessed Cardinal Clemens von Galen, who under the Nazis “not only condemned euthanasia as an unethical procedure, but he also condemned the laws which permitted it.”
“This is the question that has to be raised: Are we to offer moral teaching solely about actions, or also the laws which permit and foster them?” Cardinal George commented to Allen.
He suggested an effort to put the language of the Hyde Amendment back into the health care legislation would “go a long way toward fostering reconciliation” between the bishops and the CHA.
At the U.S. bishops’ executive session last week, the USCCB president reportedly discussed the fallout resulting from CHA’s support for the health care legislation despite the bishops’ opposition.
Several bishops who wished to remain anonymous told CNA that Cardinal George charged CHA and other Catholic groups with providing “cover” for undecided legislators to support President Obama’s legislation. He said these groups’ actions also weakened the moral voice of the bishops in the U.S., caused confusion and wounded Catholic unity.
Differences between the USCCB and the CHA were not just two equally valid conclusions inspired by Catholic teaching, he commented.
According to these episcopal sources, the cardinal clearly remarked that Sr. Carol and her colleagues are to blame for the passage of the bill. The prelate also criticized as meaningless the president’s executive order allegedly barring abortion funding, saying that Sr. Carol was mistaken to think that the legislation is pro-life.