BALTIMORE – The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops said Monday that church leaders have a duty to the nation and God to raise moral concerns in the debate over health care, whether the issue is abortion rights or coverage for the poor.
Chicago Cardinal Francis George said that church leaders are obliged to ensure that "issues that are moral questions before they become political remain moral questions when they become political." Roman Catholic prelates believe that "everyone should be cared for and that no one should be deliberately killed," he said.
George made the remarks in a wide-ranging speech at the start of the conference's fall meeting that defended the bishops' role as teachers inside and outside the church. Discussion of the proposed health care overhaul is not on the agenda for public sessions that run through Wednesday, but George raised the issue in his speech.
George said the clergy sex abuse crisis or any other past wrongdoing by church leaders should not be allowed to discredit Catholic teaching, especially since the church has undertaken an unprecedented effort to purge dioceses of abusers and enact safeguards for children. Victim advocates insist that dioceses still allow some guilty priests to serve in public church jobs.
George said it was the job of the bishops to be public without being "co-opted" by any political agenda and serve as "leaven for the world's transformation" in policy debates.
"We are most grateful to those in either political party who share these common moral concerns and govern our country in accordance with them," he said.
The meeting's agenda deals largely with personal moral concerns, such as marriage and artificial contraception, and the final segments of an English-language translation of a new Roman Missal.
None of the proposed documents on marriage or family issues breaks new ground. But the bishops said the pastoral letters were needed to clear up widespread confusion about Catholic teaching and incorporate more recent statements by Pope Benedict XVI. Voting is set for Tuesday.
The draft pastoral letter "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan," grew out of a 2004 initiative by the bishops meant to support married couples.
The document affirms marriage as the union of one man and one woman for the purpose of childbearing, calls artificial contraception "intrinsically evil" and condemns same-sex unions as damaging "the intrinsic dignity of every human person and the common good of society."
The statement also explains in question-and-answer format the church's opposition to reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization that replace the "self-giving love" of a husband and wife.
The bishops will also take up a proposed update of their "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services." The draft revision addresses nutrition and hydration for patients in a persistent vegetative state — an issue that caused a national uproar in the case of Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman whose family members battled each other in court for years over whether to remove her feeding tube.
The draft document would state that medically assisted nutrition and hydration, while not mandatory in every case, should be provided to all patients who would benefit, including those in a persistent vegetative state. However, the aid should not be provided if it becomes "excessively burdensome" for a patient who is very close to death, the revision states.