In November, as the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore for an annual meeting, their conference president, Chicago Cardinal Francis George, warned of an “acute” rift in Church unity in this country, particularly in regard to the very role of the bishop.

Little did he know that a little more than a month later, that rift would widen dramatically.

Just before Christmas, the Catholic Health Association (CHA), a trade group of some 600 Catholic hospitals, issued a statement in support for one of its members — St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz. — and the network to which it belongs, Catholic Healthcare West, which is headquartered in San Francisco and calls itself the eighth-largest hospital chain in the nation.

Ordinarily, that would not have been too unusual. But one day earlier the hospital had been stripped of its “Catholic” title by local Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted because of a pattern of ethical violations and its ultimate refusal to acknowledge them and undergo reform.

The CHA statement was, therefore, an astonishingly direct attack on the bishop’s authority. More generally, it rejects the role of bishops, as successors to the apostles, to speak definitively on matters of faith and morals.

Although Cardinal George did not mention the organization in his fall address, CHA played a large role in his concern for Church unity, despite its history of a close working relationship with the bishops’ conference. Earlier this year, CHA, headed by a woman religious, contradicted the bishops’ analysis of the health care reform bill’s impact on abortion funding (and the bishops have since been proved correct). While media reports focused on the clash between “the bishops and the nuns,” CHA support appeared to help the bill finally win passage.

So the question remains: Who speaks for the Catholic Church? Here is how Cardinal George framed the answer, in a key passage from his speech:

“We bishops have no illusions about our speaking for everyone who considers himself or herself Catholic; but that is not our job. We speak for the apostolic faith, and those who hold it gather round. We must listen to the sensus fidei, the sense of the faith itself in the lives of our people, but this is different from intellectual trends and public opinion. ... The bishops in apostolic communion and in union with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, speak for the Church in matters of faith and in moral issues and the laws surrounding them. All the rest is opinion, often well-considered and important opinion that deserves a careful and respectful hearing, but still opinion.”

It is undeniable that the bishops as a group have been weakened by the clerical sex abuse scandal. They have also been weakened by shows of disunity, especially with regard to the Church’s voice in the public square.

But it is also undeniable that continued weakness and division will be exploited by those who reject the Church’s defense of all human life, particularly the most vulnerable and the poor. The American Civil Liberties Union has already asked federal health care officials, in light of the Phoenix situation, to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions and distribute abortifacient morning-after drugs. That would effectively end the Catholic presence in health care in the United States.

Pray for the men whom God has given us as bishops. Pray that they will be holy, gentle courageous successors of the apostles. And pray for a healing of this wound to Church unity.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.