BALTIMORE -- The U.S. bishops' president defended the bishops' involvement in the healthcare debate, saying Monday that church leaders have a duty to the nation and God to raise moral concerns on any issue, including on abortion rights and coverage for the poor.
The bishops must ensure that "issues that are moral questions before they become political remain moral questions when they become political," said Chicago Cardinal Francis George, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Catholic prelates believe that "everyone should be cared for and that no one should be deliberately killed," George said in a wide-ranging speech that started the conference's fall meeting and re-asserted the bishops' role not only as guardians of the faith but also as moral guides outside the church.
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Years of the clergy sex abuse crisis had eroded the bishops' moral authority. But George insisted that the church has purged dioceses of abusers and enacted unprecedented safeguards for children, despite victim advocates' claims that more must be done.
"The sinfulness of churchmen cannot be allowed to discredit the truth of Catholic teaching," he said. He thanked lawmakers "in either political party" who share the bishops' moral concerns "and govern our country in accordance with them."
The bishops' authority also has been challenged from within the church, by those who reject parts of Catholic theology and more traditional Catholics who say church leaders haven't done enough to curtail dissent. George revealed that he has formed a task force on bishops' ties to Catholic universities. The issue erupted last summer when the University of Notre Dame gave an honorary degree to President Barack Obama, who supports abortion rights.
The meeting's agenda deals largely with family issues, 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 breaks new ground. But the bishops said the pastoral letters are 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," affirms marriage as the union of one man and one woman, 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."
A separate statement 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 also will 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.
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