Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Nov. 16 that Catholic publications, universities or other organizations that insist on complete independence from their bishops are “sectarian, less than fully Catholic.”
In his presidential address at the opening session of the fall USCCB general assembly in Baltimore, George announced that the bishops “have recently begun discussions on how we might strengthen our relationship to Catholic universities, to media claiming to be a voice in the church, and to organizations that direct various works under Catholic auspices.”
According to NCR sources, those issues were to be the main topic of discussion in a three-hour executive session the afternoon of Nov. 18, when the bishops were slated to meet alone behind closed doors, with all reporters and observers and virtually all USCCB staff excluded.
George placed his comments in the context of the bishops’ role in governance as promoters and guarantors of church unity.
I'm really excited about the prospect of finally obtaining clarity for the sake of our children and the propagation of our faith.
“Since everyone in Catholic communion is truly interrelated, and the visible nexus of these relations is the bishop, an insistence on complete independence from the bishop renders a person or institution sectarian, less than fully Catholic. The purpose of our reflections, therefore, is to clarify questions of truth or faith and of accountability or community among all those who claim to be part of Catholic communion.”
At a press conference later that afternoon George declined to name specific Catholic media, higher education or other organizations that the bishops might have in mind, but he said that more generally “if any institution, including the media, calls itself Catholic,” it is the moral responsibility of a bishop to assure that it is Catholic.
That offers the bishops “a chance to clarify the relationship” and see if the entity in question is operating within the bonds of Catholic communion, he said.
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Cardinal George also spoke about the responsibilities of bishops as teachers, defending the right of the bishops to define what it means to be Catholic and "to clarify questions of truth or faith and of accountability or community among all those who claim to be part of Catholic communion."
In making that remark about Catholic identity, Cardinal George was referring to two separate but related controversies: his own decision to set up USCCB committees to set standards for Catholic identity in educational institutions and media outlets; and the current political debate over health-care reform, in which the US bishops' conference has been heavily involved. Regarding the latter, the cardinal defended the right of Church leaders to engage in the public debate, noting that bishops are moral leaders, and "issues that are moral questions before they become political remain moral questions when they become political.”