BALTIMORE – In a direct challenge to President-elect Barack Obama, America’s Roman Catholic bishops vowed on Tuesday to accept no compromise for the sake of national unity until there is legal protection for the unborn.
About 300 bishops, gathered in Baltimore for their national meeting, adopted a formal blessing for a child in the womb and advised Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, president of the conference, as he began drafting a statement from the bishops to the incoming Obama administration. That document will call on the administration and Catholics who supported Obama to work to outlaw abortion.
“This is not a matter of political compromise or a matter of finding some way of common ground,” said Bishop Daniel Conlon of Steubenville, Ohio. “It’s a matter of absolutes.”
The bishops, long one of the leading political forces against abortion, spent the first part of Tuesday behind closed doors reportedly debating the merits of “Faithful Citizenship,” a nuanced guide for Catholic voters issued last November.
Though the document made clear that “the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many,” it also advised Catholics to weigh issues like poverty, war, the environment and human rights when choosing candidates.
But some bishops said they were surprised to see Catholics cite the document as justification for selecting candidates–like Obama–who support abortion rights. A slim majority of the nation’s Catholics voted for the Democratic candidate.
Several bishops said that Catholics could not in good conscience vote for a candidate who favored abortion rights after Obama pledged to pass legislation that would overturn state’s restrictions on abortion such as late-term abortion bans and requirements of parental consent.
“Any one of us here would consider it a privilege to die tomorrow–die tomorrow!–to bring about the end of abortion,” said Auxiliary Bishop Robert Hermann of St. Louis.
Bishops Thomas Paprocki of Chicago said such legislation could threaten laws that allow health-care workers to refrain from carrying out procedures that violate their conscience, putting Catholic health care institutions in jeopardy.
“There are grave consequences,” Paprocki said in an interview. “If Catholic hospitals were required by federal law to perform abortions, we’d have to close our hospitals.”
“I don’t think I’m being alarmist,” Paprocki told the bishops.
George agreed that losing federal funds would put Catholic health care facilities, which make up a third of the nation’s hospitals, out of business. Closing Catholic hospitals would put many patients seeking charitable care from those facilities at risk, he added.
In crafting the statement to Obama, the bishops urged the cardinal to indicate a desire to work with the administration in areas of economic justice, immigration reform, health care for the poor and religious freedom. But they stressed the church’s “intent on opposing evil” and “defense of the unborn child.”
They vowed to oppose any law or executive order that might loosen restrictions on abortion.
They emphasized that efforts to advance abortion rights would “permanently alienate tens of millions of Americans and would be interpreted by many Catholics as an attack on the Church.” They also urged Catholics in public life to be committed to the teachings of the church.
Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pa., vice president-elect Joe Biden’s home town, called on his brother bishops to be more punitive against Catholic officials who are “stridently anti-life.”
“I cannot have the vice president coming to Scranton and saying he learned his values there when those values are utterly against those of the Catholic Church,” Martino said.
Sister Jamie Phelps, a theologian at Xavier University in Louisiana, also served on Obama’s National Catholic Advisory Board. She applauds the bishops for issuing the statement. But she said the Faithful Citizenship document made it clear that while the rights of an unborn child are a priority voters should consider a whole range of issues regarding the preservation and quality of life.
“That child has no voice if it’s not the voice of the bishops and the voice of Catholics,” she said. “But you can not pick and choose an intrinsic evil.”
George said the Faithful Citizenship document remains the guiding principle for Catholic voters. But he said future versions should be tweaked so portions are not “misused and misinterpreted.” He said Catholics seemed to overlook the “whole question of proportionate reason.”
George has attributed Obama’s victory to the economy, insisting that it was not a referendum on moral issues such as abortion rights.
The bishops also approved a blessing on Tuesday devoted to a child in the womb, intended to support parents, unite parishes and foster respect for human life within society.
“Obviously it’s a very tangible way for us to witness pastorally and sacramentally to the life of an unborn child,” said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville. “It’s very consistent with the priorities we’ve raised.”