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On its website, the Diocese of Greensburg, Pa. is currently promoting, a USCCB website to be launched on the World Day of Prayer for Vocations this Sunday. The diocese will not, however, be praying for vocations to the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden. Once a major supplier of teachers and health care workers in Catholic schools and hospitals in the Pittsburgh area, the order is down to about 230 mostly elderly nuns plus a single would-be postulant. It’s planning a little outreach to see if there are young women interested in signing on, and would like some help with publicity from local dioceses.

So what’s the problem? Last month, the sisters’ leadership team had the temerity to join the leaders of several dozen other orders of women religious in signing a statement supporting passage of the Senate’s health care reform bill–and thereby, in the view  of the bishop of Greenburg, Lawrence E. Brandt, “publicly
repudiated the USCCB’s concerns, which were based on Catholic doctrinal
and moral teachings for which the bishops are responsible.”
Actually, the letter did did not repudiate the USCCB’s concerns. It made the prudential judgment that the proposed law would not do what the bishops claimed it would–e.g. allow federal funding of elective abortions. Nor was that an unreasonable position, as Nicholas Carfardi makes clear in an article in America arguing that the bishops’ claims were based on a politically distorted interpretation of the bill.

But for bishops like Brandt, the issue is not whether reasonable pro-life Catholics might differ in their understanding of a complicated piece of legislation. Rather, it’s whether, once the episcopate has rendered an opinion, other Catholic institutions can beg to differ. The answer, evidently, is no: Episcopus locutus, causa finita. Not that all bishops are going in for the kind of petty revenge inflicted by Brandt on the Baden sisters. Far from it. But the kind of papal authoritarianism that has gathered strength in recent decades does seem to be spreading through the episcopal ranks: Every bishop a pope in his own diocese.

Under the circumstances,Hans Küng’s call for bishops to push for a new Church council to address the current crisis makes you wonder. On the one hand, self-respecting bishops would probably like to be able to push back against pope and curia every now and then. On the other, as Vatican II showed, once the bell starts tolling for cooperation, collaboration, and partnership in the Church, it tolls for bishops as well as popes.