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The CHA, the Bishops and Authority

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 01, 2011

Where conflicts arise, it is again the bishop who provides the authoritative resolution based on his teaching office. Once such a resolution of a doubt has been given, it is no longer a question of competing moral theories or the offering of various ethical interpretations or opinions of the medical data that can still be legitimately espoused and followed. The matter has now reached the level of an authoritative resolution.

The above quotation is a key passage in Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s response to Sister Carol Keehan’s letter affirming that the diocesan bishop, and not the Catholic Health Association (and still less a particular hospital staff), is the authoritative interpreter of the Church’s ethical guidelines on health care. Archbishop Dolan is the President of the USCCB and Sister Keehan is the President of the Catholic Health Association. Keehan recently sided with a Phoenix hospital which was declared no longer Catholic by Bishop Thomas Olmsted after performing an abortion. She has now corrected herself.

This is a small step toward the resuscitation of the CHA as a truly Catholic organization, given its unqualified support for Obamacare while the U. S. Bishops opposed it on specifically moral grounds. Time will tell how much it means and, really, in coming years it will mean no more and no less than the bishops insist that it means as they gather their Catholic strength. That’s important, but it is not primarily what interests me here.

The exchange between Archbishop Dolan and Sister Keehan also makes clear that it is the local bishop who is authoritative, not the USCCB as a whole. That too is an important point, since episcopal authority resides only in individual bishops, and not in a committee or a conference. However, the days when the human authority of the Conference eclipsed the Divine authority of an individual bishop are now fading into memory. Important as this is, it is again not what primarily interests me here.

Rather, what strikes me most forcibly is Archbishop Dolan’s theological insistence on the difference between opinion and authority. Here truly we have a meditation for our times.

Our culture makes no significant distinction between opinion and authority. At best, “authority” is seen as a source of particularly valuable opinion, such as when a scientist is sought to give an opinion on global warming, or the Secretary of State is asked to comment on a political crisis. Everybody still assumes that others, with equal authority, could (and certainly will) disagree. In most cases it will be impossible to know immediately who is right and who is wrong. We are used to having “authorities” contradict each other. Indeed, this happens with such frequency that the very idea of authority has been significantly discounted in the modern world, especially when it comes to matters of truth.

But Catholic doctrinal authority is a very different sort of authority. It derives from God and, when properly exercised, has all the assurance of Revelation. This is very difficult for our contemporaries to grasp. To begin with, in the realm of truth and right understanding, we find the very notion that there can be anything at all that is completely trustworthy to be nearly inconceivable. And to think that there are actually some persons who can decide certain complex questions without fear of error is less conceivable still.

Yet Divine Revelation is an absolutely certain source of truth, possessing an ultimate authority inaccessible to the human mind through any other branch of knowledge or any other experience or expertise. Moreover, the Magisterium of the Church is an absolutely certain guide to understanding Revelation correctly. Finally, each bishop is invested by God himself with a grace of office which enables him to teach on faith and morals with the authority of Christ, so long as he does so in union with the successor of Peter, who uniquely possesses the Magisterial authority in himself. Consequently, once the local bishop has decided a matter of faith and morals according to the mind of the Church, we are no longer faced with opinion but with certainty.

This is the point Archbishop Dolan is making. It is not simply that we must obey the voice of authority in the local bishop even though he might be wrong. Rather, when properly exercised in union with the Pope, the local bishop’s authority in matters of faith and morals is different in kind from those merely human authorities which we habitually pit one against the other. Episcopal authority is a Divine authority, an authority unqualified in its perfection, an authority to which all those bound by it can safely accede. Such authority is a tremendous gift, though a gift to which our contemporaries are too often blind. When exercised, it ought to inspire not only confidence in the course it sets before us, but gratitude that we have been saved from error.

For what reasonable person, faced with a difficult moral dilemma, especially if the fate of others depends on his decision, would prefer to derive his action from an opinion when he has the opportunity to derive it from the truth itself? This is what it means to act in conformity with reality, and only two types of people choose to act otherwise: the confused, inadvertently, and the proud, deliberately. On the day of judgment, I shall be very sorry indeed if I am found to be confused. But, by God, I’ll be damned if I’m found proud.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 02, 2011 10:06 PM ET USA

    To Eagle: Please note that I emphasized that bishops are able, by their office, to teach the truth with full authority by virtue of their doctrinal union with the Pope (or, as I put it in another spot, according to the mind of the Church). You are right that a bishop cannot define new doctrines infallibly, but by the grace of his office he can authoritatively state Catholic doctrine on faith and morals, with perfect assurance of truth and binding authority, if he does so in union with the Pope, that is, according to what the Magisterium has already taught.

  • Posted by: Hal - Feb. 02, 2011 12:04 PM ET USA

    Well said!

  • Posted by: - Feb. 02, 2011 9:06 AM ET USA

    I'm not sure CHA has moved in any direction. Nothing in Keehan's letter hinted at obedience to the local bishop. I can acknowledge the authority of the local sheriff, and still rob the bank. I will continue to pray for CHA and the USCCB.

  • Posted by: Eagle - Feb. 02, 2011 7:44 AM ET USA

    There is a logical jump from "authoritative" to "truthful" that is an inaccurate doctrinal statement. The charism of infallibility, by which we can be assured of the truth, is very limited. provided that all of the criteria are met, the Holy Father, individually, or in union with an Ecumenical Council, has it; individual Bishops do not. Whether one looks at the former Archbishop of Milwaukee, the sexual abuse crisis, or otherwise, the exercise of authority is not a warranty of truth.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 01, 2011 9:45 PM ET USA

    "But, by God, I’ll be damned if I’m found proud." Nice turn of phrase, Dr. Jeff. You're getting pretty good at this.