Parishioners at St. John’s Church in Honesdale, Pa., might be excused for being confused about the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops . On Oct. 19, at a forum on the presidential election sponsored by the parish, Bishop Joseph F. Martino of Scranton interrupted a seminar in progress. As the local newspaper reported the event, he expressed his opposition to the way in which the forum was representing the church’s teaching on voting for pro-choice candidates. When Margaret Gannon, I.H.M., of Marywood University, referred to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship , a document on the moral responsibilities of Catholic voters published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was approved by a 98 percent majority, Bishop Martino replied, “No U.S.C.C.B. document is relevant in this diocese…. The U.S.C.C.B. does not speak for me.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops traces its history as far back as 1917, when the American bishops organized to provide spiritual care for servicemen during wartime. Today, like many nationwide and regional conferences, the U.S.C.C.B. helps to articulate a unified Catholic voice on important national issues. According to canon law, bishops’ conferences “jointly exercise certain pastoral functions on behalf of the Christian faithful of their territory in view of promoting that greater good which the Church offers humankind” (Canon 447). The conference’s mission statement speaks of evangelization in a “communal and collegial manner.” Indeed, some of their most influential documents, like Economic Justice for All , The Challenge of Peace  and Always Our Children , are the more powerful because of this “communal and collegial manner.”
Collegiality is an important aspect of the exercise of episcopal authority in our church. When a bishop speaks, we should listen. When the bishops speak together, with one voice, we should listen all the more.Tasers as Deadly Weapons
An emotionally disturbed man fell to his death from a building ledge in Brooklyn, N.Y., after a policeman stunned him with a Taser in late September. The death of Iman Morales gives new impetus to a long-simmering debate over how and whether to use Tasers, high voltage devices that cause muscular disruption. Some 12,000 police, jail and prison agencies in the United States use them. Amnesty International, while acknowledging that the use of a Taser can sometimes be justified as an alternative to firearms, has long been critical of their use against mentally disturbed people.
Last year, Amnesty issued a statement calling for a U.S. Justice Department  inquiry into Taser-related deaths. Though “less injurious than firearms...the vast majority of people who have died,” its report said, “have been unarmed men who did not pose a threat.” Mr. Morales, for example, was unarmed and posed no threat. The statement added that Tasers are being too widely used before rigorous testing as to their potential health risks. Mr. Morales’s death, moreover, makes it clear that police chiefs should require far more training for their officers in the use of these control devices. The use of Tasers can be harmful even for conscientious law enforcement personnel. The officer who gave the order to fire at Morales committed suicide a few days later, a grim sign of the Taser’s doubly lethal potential.Do Rocks Have Rights?
Dec. 10 is the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights . Various groups have been pushing for the recognition of animal rights, and over 100 law schools in the United States teach courses on animal law. In California voters just cast ballots for or against Proposition 2, regarding how much space should be allotted to industrially farmed chickens, cows and pigs.
A new stage beyond human and animal rights was reached, however, on Sept. 28, when Ecuadorans approved their new constitution. Article One of the chapter on rights for nature states: “Nature, or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” Having granted inalienable rights to nature, the state now has the responsibility to protect vegetative life and mineral resources. Trees now have standing, and rocks have rights!
The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace  has listed damage to the environment as a new deadly sin. Respect for the world is respect for God the Creator. The attitude advocated is neither anthropocentric nor ecocentric but theocentric, centered on God, the giver of all good gifts.
Perhaps speaking of the rights of nature is simply a new way to speak of environmental ethics. In light of the multiple threats to our environment, we hope it is an effective way that does not lead to legal absurdities and skewed public policy.