On November 16, at the U.S. Bishops’ Conference’s annual meeting, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago gave his final address as president Conference. In it he looked back over his three-year tenure as president, gave a penetrating analysis into current issues and trends and proposed various lessons— especially from the ongoing health care debate — that he and his brother bishops, and the churches they lead, must grasp. Insofar as Cardinal George is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant bishops in U.S. Church history, his presidential valedictory deserves to be studied by all those who love this country and love the Church.
First, he focused on the present context of the bishops’ work in teaching and shepherding God’s people. He says that both are now being challenged by those “who would either want to remake the Church according to their own designs or discredit her as a voice in the public discussions that shape our society.” He suggests that there are some who have an agenda contrary to the plan of Christ who either want the Church to change to reflect that agenda or who want to undermine the Church’s capacity to speak credibly. This insight is doubtless not a revelation to most bishops or intelligent Catholics, but it points to the fact that the shepherds’ work in feeding and guiding Christ’s flock is going to encounter wolves — and they need to be prepared for it.
The second point was about the proper limits of the bishops’ competence in public interventions. “We have only very cautiously entered into details of public policy,” Cardinal George said, “for this is more properly the work of lay people, as it has been in the health care debate. 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.” The bishops, in other words, have no specific competence to determine the minutiae of public policy, and there is plenty of room for legitimate disagreement among Catholics as to how particular aspects of the common good ought to be met. These words are a healthy dose of self-restraint for a Conference that, at times in the past, has been criticized for overstepping its bounds and putting the weight of the Church behind particular pieces of legislation favoring governmental solutions on which properly conscientious Catholic lay people could legitimately disagree.
Cardinal George, however, said that this restraint does not mean that the bishops do not have the competence and duty to determine whether when particular pieces of legislation violate the common good.” This is what the Conference must do, he stressed, when “proposed legislation uses public funds to kill those living in their mother’s womb.” This is the duty the bishops fulfilled during the health care debate. He said that there was confusion sown in certain circles — by some Democratic legislators and leaders of the Catholic Health Association — about whether, empirically, the health care legislation permitted the funding of abortion. That it did, he said, was made plain in at least three ways: by the explicit removal of Hyde Amendment restrictions from the Senate bill that was confirmed by the House; by the detailed reports of lay experts at the Bishops’ conference and at the National Right to Life Committee citing the actual legislation; and by the attempts of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after the passage of the bill to fund abortions in several states through Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plans. Others, he said, tried to pretend that the legislation was too complicated for the bishops to form a moral judgment. “If you will excuse my saying so,” he replied with animated wit, “this implies either that no one can understand or judge complicated pieces of legislation, in which case it is immoral to act until sufficient clarity is obtained, or it is to say that only bishops are too dense to understand complicated pieces of legislation!” Throughout the debate, he said, the bishops fulfilled their principle duty, to keep “the moral and intellectual integrity of the faith intact,” even if, at present, the outcome still leaves the unborn unprotected.
Fourth, Cardinal George raised the ecclesiological issue of “who speaks for the Catholic Church.” He began by candidly noting, “We bishops have no illusions about our speaking for everyone who considers himself or herself Catholic,” but insisted, “we speak for the apostolic faith, and those who hold it gather round.” There are some Catholics, he indicates, who do not share the faith handed on by the apostles through their successors, and the bishops do not pretend to speak for them, but neither do all Catholics by their baptism speak for the faith. Their commentary is just “opinion, often well-considered and important opinion that deserves a careful and respectful hearing, but still opinion.” This is an important clarification because of the scandalous role played by some Catholic public figures during the health care debate, especially the Catholic Health Association and its president, Sr. Carol Keenan. In close coordination with the White House, Sr. Keenan regularly sowed darnel in the debate by publicly maintaining against the bishops that the bill did not fund abortions. Moreover, she allowed her organization — a trade union representing Catholic hospitals — to be used to give the impression that Catholic hospitals, and therefore, the Catholic Church, supported the legislation as is.
That led to the fifth and most general point: how faithful Catholics should approach political issues that are also moral. Cardinal George said that the health care debate illustrated that there are essentially two camps: those who start “with the faith in its integrity and fit their political choices into the context of the fullness of the Church’s teaching” and those “for whom a political choice, even a good choice, [is] basic and the Church [is] judged useful by whether or not she provide[s] foot soldiers for their political commitment, whether of the left or the right.” The distinction is whether one is a Catholic first, or a Democrat, Republican, or Tea Partier first; whether one is trying to bring one’s political party and associations more in line with the Catholic faith or trying to bring the Church more in line with one’s political party or persuasions. “For too many,” Cardinal George regrets, “politics is the ultimate horizon of their thinking and acting.” That is leading not only to fractures in society but also a “wound to the Church’s unity.” The remedy to this, Cardinal George says, is two-fold: “orthodoxy in belief and obedience in practice.” It’s not enough merely to know the faith; it must be lived. The bishops must help Catholics learn and live the fullness of the faith, which will bring about the restoration of “the seamless garment of ecclesial communion” and heal some of the fractures of society.
The bishops, he said, need to model that restoration and be “consistent,” to remain together, “because the concerns of Jesus Christ are consistent.” He recast and updated a much-misused phrase of his predecessor as Archbishop of Chicago and Conference President, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who in 1983 called for a “consistent ethic of life.” Cardinal George asked his fellow bishops to join him in proclaiming “a consistent ethic of Christ’s concerns for all his people, especially the poor,” specifying first a priority to defend life at its foundation and then to preserving, protecting and promoting the dignity of those who are allowed to be born: “The voice of Christ speaks always from a consistent concern for the gift of human life, a concern that judges the full continuum of technological manipulation of life, from the use of artificial contraception to the destruction of human embryos to the artificial conception of human beings in a Petri dish to genetic profiling to the killing of unwanted children through abortion. If the poor are allowed to be born, then the voice of Christ continues to speak to the homeless and the jobless, the hungry and the naked, the uneducated, the migrant, the imprisoned, the sick and the dying.”
To hear the voice of Christ and share his consistent concern for all his people is the urgent task of bishops and all those who share the faith of the apostles gathered around them.