Policy & Advocacy

The Bishops and the Right Exercise of Authority

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

By Rev. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap

In his August 13 article in Commonweal magazine, “The Limits  of Authority,” Professor R. Gaillardetz argued that because of the complexity  of the issues in the recent health care reform debate, various legitimate  prudential judgments could be made. The United States Conference of Catholic  Bishops came to one prudential judgment, but individual Catholics as well as  the Catholic Health Association and some women religious, could come to other  prudential judgments that are equally valid. All such prudential judgments  could be applying authentic moral principles. In the light of this, Gaillardetz  concluded that the USCCB overstepped its authority by insisting that all  Catholics and organizations that reside under the Catholic umbrella must agree  with its analysis of the health-care reform act and its judgment that the act  did not sufficiently protect the lives of the unborn. I wish to argue that the  bishops did not misuse their authority. Rather, they exercised it prudentially  and in a manner that accords with their charism as bishops – authentic teachers  of faith and morals.
Bishops have the obligation to judge  the morality of actions, for example, that the direct killing of an unborn  child is always a moral evil. This obligation to judge not only applies in  stating the principle, but it also applies to concrete situations where such  immoral actions are either directly promoted or legally authorized. Thus,  bishops have the obligation to judge the moral content of laws that permit,  foster, or require citizens to pay for gravely immoral actions (for example, by  paying for insurance policies that cover such actions). The bishops also  rightly employ experts in various fields to examine the content of laws,  precisely because they can be complex, as in the case of the health-care reform  act.
Contrary to Gallardetz’s argument,  such complexity does not make an issue less morally compelling or take it out  of the moral order. Gallardetz is correct that where there are complex  situations or complex laws, where a variety of justifiable approaches could be  taken to advance a good end, there can be a variety of genuine prudential  judgments. For example, a variety of legitimate prudential judgments could have  been made and were made concerning many aspects of health-care reform, such as  concerning the funding of healthcare – directly by the government, by some type  of employer mandate, etc.  On such  issues, the bishops only stated the principle that all should be cared for, but  the best means by which to accomplish this was open to the prudential judgment  of legislators and others, individuals and organizations, who rightfully wished  to express an opinion. If the bishops, in this situation, had insisted that  their prudential judgment on how best to pay for universal health care was the  only correct one and that no Catholic could hold another prudential judgment,  they would have overstepped their authority.
However, once the elected officials  made the political choice for subsidized insurance policies, the bishops judged  the proposal according to whether or not such subsidies would pay for gravely  immoral actions, such as abortions, or for health plans that would cover them. Such  federal subsidies – for most abortions, and for health plans that cover them –  are forbidden already in other federal health programs, so to depart from that  standard would be to weaken government policy on respect for unborn human life  – and that is itself an immoral action by government. It is no longer a  question of making a prudential judgment concerning any number of possibly good  actions. Now it is a judgment of whether an immoral action is being permitted  and fostered. With regard to the issue of direct abortion, there is not a  variety of legitimate prudential judgments. This is a matter of absolute moral  prohibition.
That the health-care reform bill  subsidizes plans that cover abortion and evades current abortion funding  restrictions such as the Hyde amendment when it appropriates large amounts of  money for various kinds of health care services, is apparent from the text of  the legislation (or rather, from what is missing from it) because it nowhere references  or incorporates the full extent of such restrictions. Given the long history of  court decisions saying that general health legislation like Medicaid must fund  abortions unless Congress says otherwise, an executive order cannot compensate  for this serious flaw, and in any case is constantly changeable (as the history  of executive orders on the Mexico City policy and embryonic stem cell research  makes clear).

The final law’s problems are also  apparent from the short experience of implementing it so far. When the law’s  transitional program for federal funding of health insurance for “high-risk”  individuals (those who have pre-existing medical conditions) was implemented  this summer, several states announced that the Administration had approved  their plans for using these funds for abortion coverage – and at least one  state had already begun to sign up enrollees for federally funded coverage that  it said would include “elective abortions.” The ensuing public outcry soon led  the Administration to issue new guidelines excluding abortion coverage. But the  USCCB’s analysis, that such subsidies for abortion were not prevented by the  health care act itself or the President’s ensuing executive order, was  confirmed by Planned Parenthood (which had no problem deciphering this complex  law) and by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The public breaking of ranks by  Catholic entities, whose decisions were often politically influenced, raises a  question of governance in the Church that is still to be resolved. The bishops  maintained their intellectual and moral integrity. They were not co-opted by  either party – in fact, they often disappointed representatives of both parties   who wanted the bishops as part of their coalition -- because they stayed at the  level of principle, fostering all that could be good and condemning only what  is morally evil. The fact that the bishops’ involvement satisfied neither party  was therefore perhaps inevitable.
The Church teaches that one can  promote and even vote in favor of a law that expands protection against the  direct taking of life, even if it is imperfect because it does not address  every possible situation. Such a law is at least going in the morally right  direction. However, the present health-care reform act went in the wrong  direction regarding the destruction of unborn human life – and, I would add, on  creating the prospect for nationwide benefits mandates with no provision for  rights of conscience -- and therefore could not ethically be endorsed. The  bishops did not abuse their authority; they exercised it as it is be exercised  – in truth, and with clarity and conviction, for the sake of the people of God  and the good of society. They have affirmed that they will continue that  service by supporting what is good and helpful in new health care legislation,  while working to change provisions in current legislation that mistreat the  precious gift of human life.

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