Two weeks ago, President Keefe announced his intention to follow the directions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in regard to the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that would require the University of Dallas to provide coverage for contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations by Aug. 1 of this year.
Although the president is currently working to obtain an exemption for UD, he has expressed willingness to “accept a compromise” at the recommendation of the USCCB, and ensured that the university will not “do anything that the bishops of the United States Catholic Conference don’t approve and direct us to do.”
Implicit in this statement, unfortunately, is a widespread misunderstanding regarding the relation between the authority of the individual bishop versus that of the USCCB. Contrary to popular belief, Catholics are not, in fact, subject to the authority of the USCCB, but only to that of the bishop of their diocese, insofar as he speaks in union with the Holy Father. A diocesan bishop is the sole authoritative teacher in his diocese; only when a bishop recommends the documents of the USCCB do they acquire any real force for his flock.
Although the USCCB serves a practical purpose as a collective group for communication between bishops on issues pertaining to the Church in the United States, it has acquired a disturbing tendency to act as a separate regulatory body, and to assert its own voice over those of individual bishops in their own dioceses. This is problematic primarily because the voice of the USCCB—as it sounds in the documents that emerge from the conference, particularly those on politics and social justice—is notoriously vague. In the group’s well-intentioned but oftentimes morally detrimental attempts to compromise for charity’s sake, the more difficult teachings of the Church are obscured or left unmentioned altogether, enabling Catholics in opposition to truths of the faith to justify their misconceptions using the ambiguities of conference documents.
In many cases, individual bishops have had to bring order to the moral chaos that unclear USCCB statements and documents have unleashed. When liberal-leaning Catholics began to use the ambiguous USCCB document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship—the language of which seems to set issues of social justice at the level of issues like abortion—to argue that Catholics can feel justified voting for pro-abortion candidates, then-Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton was compelled to issue his now-famous statement: “The USCCB doesn’t speak for me.” Despite protests by the conference and those quite content to use the conference for their own purposes, Martino ordered his flock to ignore the problematic document and abide instead by the recommendations in his own pastoral letters on the subject of voting.
Other bishops called for significant revisions to the document, hoping to better elucidate the Catholic stance on issues of voting and conscience. Though Bishops Kevin Farrell and Kevin Vann of the Diocese of Dallas-Fort Worth did not oppose the document itself, the two found it necessary to issue a lengthy message to the faithful of their diocese, clarifying the moral stance that ought to have been evident in the original document: “There are no ‘truly grave moral’ or ‘proportionate’ reasons, singularly or combined, that could outweigh the millions of innocent human lives that are directly killed by legal abortion each year. … To vote for a candidate who supports the intrinsic evil of abortion or ‘abortion rights’ when there is a morally acceptable alternative would be to cooperate in the evil—and, therefore, morally impermissible.”
More often than not, the strongest stands against moral evil come on behalf of the few courageous, individual bishops willing to dispose of the nebulous propositions of the USCCB in favor of more decisively countercultural speech and action, even amidst harsh criticism by the conference.
For example, since the USCCB has allowed each bishop to exercise his own discretion regarding the distribution of Communion to openly pro-choice, Catholic politicians—contrary to a memorandum sent to them at the time of their deliberation by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which urged the conference to follow Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law—several bishops have directly forbidden the practice in their own dioceses.
In 2009, individual bishops again found it necessary to exert their episcopal authority over dubious recommendations by the USCCB. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., and several other bishops refused to take up the collection for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the domestic anti-poverty arm of the USCCB, expressing doubts about its ideology and its collaboration with ACORN and other organizations of questionable moral standing. Despite these bishops’ concerns and the fact that the American Life League has made credible allegations against the group, the USCCB maintained, and continues to maintain, that the CCHD is a legitimate charity.
When so many individual bishops have been compelled by conscience to reject or revise the statements of the USCCB, it is imperative that we respond with caution to any decisions made by the conference.
If the USCCB directly recommends—and we must always keep in mind that anything that comes from the USCCB is indeed only a recommendation—a compromise in regard to the HHS mandate that entails complicity with intrinsic evil, or tacitly implies that such complicity is acceptable, UD is in no way obliged to accept it. The university’s current policy of immediate concession to the dictates of the USCCB is morally irresponsible; we cannot assuage our consciences with the knowledge that we are in solidarity with a body that Christ has not established as a moral authority over ourselves. We ought, rather, to observe the true hierarchy of authority, and heed first and foremost the recommendations of our own Bishop Farrell that are in union with those of the Holy Father.