The conflict between Bishop Olmstead and the Catholic Health Association is a symptom of a serious problem for the heretofore unquestionable authority of the hierarchy: a group of lay and religious experts have challenged the opinion expressed by a bishop on a critical moral theological issue. The CHA and the particular ethics commission at the hospital in question have provided an argument for their decision based on present Roman Catholic moral theology; the bishop does not enter into the discussion, but --in effect--says, "They are wrong, because I am a bishop and I say so." Increasingly, clergy, religious, and lay people are standing up and saying, "The hierarchy is wrong; the hierarchy has lied to us; the hierarchy has placed itself above the accepted principles on the basis of which we decide what is acceptable and what is not."
This is a situation that transcends simple interpretations of what the authentic opinion of the Church is. The 'sensus fidelium' and the 'sensus magisterium' of theological experts have asserted a critical right to be consulted in what the authentic Catholic faith is. The Pope, the papal curia, and the bishops are being held responsible for their opinions according to established norms by an educated laity and the authoritative opinions of theologians. It is no longer possible for the curia to declare that a particular theologian is no longer a recognized Catholic theologian for his or her opinions to be ignored.
We have entered into an era in which "moral authority' transcends other kinds of authority. One must engage the other in dialogue and argue honestly and openly for one's point of view in order to persuade other-minded people. It is no longer acceptable simply to declare conclusions without the support of rational discourse: the Pope, the Curia, the bishops [either individually or in union with one another] are no longer able to impose their opinions on the rest of the Church by fiat. Their positions must stand the test of rational discourse in order to obtain the agreement of the Church.
The exercise of such a new authority on the part of the Patriarch of the West, the Pope is set forth in the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission's “Report: Authority in the Church III". It needs to be adopted by both churches and implemented in order for us to be obedient to Christ's prayer for the unity of the Church.