Reaffirming Catholic IdentityGEORGE WEIGEL
Throughout his recently completed three-year term as president of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, OMI, gently but firmly led his brother bishops through a reflection on their duties as defenders of the integrity of the Catholic "brand."
The debate about the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions of higher education has been underway for decades, and may well take some interesting turns in the years ahead. At the moment, however, the hottest of hot buttons on this front involve health care institutions that call themselves "Catholic" but which have acquiesced to practices approved by an increasingly aggressive secular culture – and to the lure of government dollars. On that new front in the campaign to reaffirm Catholic identity, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix has become an important leader.
Bishop Olmsted inherited a terrible situation in Phoenix: the previous bishop had been disgraced; the local legal authorities had stated publicly that they could not trust the Church to police its own house in matters of sexual abuse, and proposed to take over that function themselves. Bishop Olmsted didn't squawk, nor did he deny that serious problems existed. Rather, he quietly and decisively set about fixing what needed fixing, so that the public authorities were soon content to revert to a more normal Church/state relationship.
Then, in 2009, a "therapeutic" abortion was performed at Phoenix's St. Joseph's Hospital, a part of the Catholic Healthcare West system. When Bishop Olmsted wrote the president of CHW, asking what on earth was going on, CHW attempted to justify what had happened through arguments advanced by M. Therese Lysaught, who teaches theology at Marquette University. Bishop Olmsted was not impressed, and informed CHW that it was his duty, as the local bishop, to be the authoritative interpreter of the moral law in his diocese and the authoritative interpreter of the hospital guidelines adopted by the USCCB. And the bishop went on to state that, on December 17, 2010 (the day after this is being written), he would declare that St. Joseph's Hospital is no longer to be considered a Catholic institution – unless CHW admits that the 2009 abortion that happened there violated the U.S. bishops' norms and unless CHW pledges that such an abomination will not happen again.
However the Phoenix/CHW situation eventually sorts out, an important marker has been laid down by a bishop known for both his integrity and his personal sanctity. Bishop Olmsted will undoubtedly be criticized by those for whom "dialogue" is the holy grail of Catholic life. But in our current cultural situation (and given the pressures that the Obama administration and unsympathetic state governments are likely to increase on Catholic health care facilities), the call for "dialogue" too often amounts to a prescription for slow-motion surrender, with the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions being slowly whittled away while the "dialogue" partners carry on.
The Catholic integrity of Catholic educational and health care institutions was at stake when those institutions were segregated in the 1950s and early 1960s; brave bishops like Joseph Ritter in St. Louis, Joseph Rummel in New Orleans, and Lawrence Shehan in Baltimore took a lot of heat, but did what they had to do to bring the conduct of Catholic institutions into sync with the Church's teaching on human dignity. No less ought to be expected of the Church's ordained leaders today, when the stakes are just as high, although the issues have changed. So full marks to Cardinal George for putting the issue of Catholic identity on the bishops' plates, and full marks to Bishop Olmsted for giving that new commitment real teeth.
George Weigel. "Reaffirming Catholic Identity." The Catholic Difference (January 12, 2008).
Reprinted with permission of George Weigel.
George Weigel's column is distributed by the Denver Catholic Register, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Denver. Phone: 303-715-3123.
George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of The End and the Beginning: John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.
George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.
Copyright © 2011 George Weigel
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