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A Threat to Catholic Unity: Commonweal Takes the USCCB's Challenge

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This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media.

In the June 18th issue of the Catholic publication Commonweal, the magazine's editors address a recent "remarkably defensive" letter from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ( USCCB), "Setting the Record Straight," in which the directors of three of the conference's initiatives, Pro-Life Activities, Immigration, and Justice, Peace and Human Development, chastise those who vocally dissented from the USCCB's stand against the health care bill.

Those who broke from the USCCB included Women Religious and the Catholic Health Association, as well as a host of individual Catholic bishops and lay people and, ultimately, Representative Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Senator Robert Casey Jr. (D-PA); those who disagreed with the USCCB interpreted the new bill as not expanding government funding for abortion.

Indeed, restrictions on abortion funding exist with regard to Medicaid funding via the annually-renewed Hyde Amendment (1973) and government funding for the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education departments via the Weldon Amendment (2005). Various provider refusal laws, so-called "conscience clauses," have been enacted since 1973 to limit patient access to morally or religiously "objectionable services" -- including the Church Amendment (1973), the Coats Amendment (1996) and the infamous Bush "conscience clause" (2008) -- creating a network of laws that shield denominational health care institutions and employees from adhering to patient informed consent. The premise "no federal funding for abortion" is an exaggeration of the Catholic Church -- the second largest provider of health care in the US, managing 624 hospitals nationwide -- and other "pro-life" organizations and legislators. That the Obama administration's bill violated such a premise is denied by those who dissented from the USCCB's position earlier this year.

Write the defiant editors of Commonweal:

What makes the USCCB and its legal and legislative staffs so confident that they alone are competent to understand the new law? Is there a possibility that the USCCB might be wrong? Evidently not. “Making such moral judgments, and providing guidance to Catholics on whether an action by government is moral or immoral, is first of all the task of bishops, not of any other group or individual,” the committee chairmen write. If you disagree with the bishops on highly technical legislative and legal questions, the statement suggests, you are guilty of causing confusion and wounding Catholic unity.

Independence of conscience has long been supported in Catholic doctrine. Catholics for Choice, in a 2008 document, "In Good Conscience," cite various sources including St. Thomas Aquinas -- ignoring an erroneous conscience is a mortal sin -- to St. Paul -- one's conscience is primary but should not trump that of others. The Commonweal editors cite their own source: The USCCB's 2007 statement "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" in which, "the conference insisted that 'we bishops do not intend to tell Catholics for whom or against whom to vote,' and that 'the responsibility to make choices in political life rests with each individual in light of a properly formed conscience.'” It's a mandate that is supported by US law regarding "separation of church and state" and the tax-exempt status of churches.

The Commonweal editors conclude:

If the authors of “Setting the Record Straight” wish to seize a “new opportunity for the Catholic community to come together in defense of human life,” they can start by not questioning the motives of those Catholics who disagree with them about how best to interpret the provisions of the new health-insurance law. On questions such as this, disagreement should not be understood as a threat to unity, but as a sign of the church’s intellectual vitality.

This article is cross-posted from  The Revealer, a daily review of religion and media.