BALTIMORE — National Catholic leaders this week ratified the church’s official position in the ongoing health care debate, reiterating their tough stance against abortion rights and on other hot-button issues as the legislation makes its way through the Senate.
At the annual fall meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a group that has come under fire for lobbying heavily for anti-abortion measures in health care reform, church officials defended their positions and the pressure they have put on Capitol Hill leaders.
“Every church has a right to address issues. We’ve been careful through the years both as a conference and as individual bishops to see to it that we do not endorse candidates and we always address issues,— said Rockville Centre, Long Island, Bishop William Murphy, a domestic policy expert.
During an interview at the annual conference, Murphy strongly beat back the criticisms of some House liberals that the church leaders are meddling inappropriately in the health care debate. He suggested that Protestant groups routinely engage the political realm.
“There are other religious groups that do far more ... but as the Catholic Church, we’ve been scrupulous in not endorsing politicians,— he said.
Murphy’s words echoed those of the new official statement put out by the conference.
“In the national discussion on how to provide the best kind of health care, we bishops do not claim or present ourselves as experts on health care policy,— Chicago Archbishop Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote in the Nov. 17 statement. “Our focus is on the reality of those families with children, the poor and the elderly, the mother carrying a child in her womb, those with limited or no means of access to doctors.—
Murphy said the Catholic leaders are not trying to play politics.
“We’ve been equally insistent in the American system that we have a right to speak out about issues, to have our voice heard ... I don’t consider that getting my hands dirty,— he said. “I have a high regard for the political profession, but what you have to recognize is that ours is going to be a moral voice in order to explain and clarify fundamental principles that we think are necessary for a good society, and we’re part of the conversation.—
The bishop’s comments came as liberal Democrats continue to push the White House to keep restrictions on abortion rights out of the final legislation. Last week, nearly 100 House Democrats who support reproductive rights wrote to President Barack Obama about the House health care bill, which contains an anti-abortion amendment sponsored by Reps. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa.).
“We believe that women should have access to a full range of reproductive health care. Health care reform must not be misused as an opportunity to restrict women’s access to reproductive health services,— pro-abortion-rights Democrats wrote on Nov. 10. “The Stupak-Pitts amendment ... represents an unprecedented restriction on women’s access to health care coverage of reproductive health services.—
Murphy also reiterated the church’s strong demands that illegal immigrants be covered in the legislation, but he said the issue is not on equal footing with abortion. The Long Island bishop said the doors of his diocese’s five hospitals are already open to anyone, regardless of their immigration status.
“Abortion is the taking of innocent life ... and killing is different from having as much access to health care as we want ... anybody who comes to any one of my hospitals is given health care,— he said. “In a sense, while we want everyone to be covered — and we’re not compromising this — but it doesn’t have the same moral immediacy that abortion does.—
But Murphy also said that bishops are vigilant about making sure their strong statements in the current health care debate do not threaten the church’s tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. Paraphrasing former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the bishop reflected on the seductive qualities of political power.
“We have to be careful that we never lose who we are. We’re voices of conscience and, in our case, Catholic teachings,— he said. “We’re not Democrats, we’re not Republicans, and we cannot be co-opted by Democrats or by Republicans.—
Murphy also declined to respond directly to the question of whether Catholic lawmakers would be denied religious sacraments if they ultimately vote for health care legislation that does not include church-sanctioned abortion prohibitions.
“I think it’s kind of like asking a confessor how he’s going to deal with a specific sin when someone comes into confession,— he said. “It’s between him and me, or her and me.—
“Each bishop is responsible for his own diocese,— Murphy continued. “While we will have these discussions that we will have here in conference, each bishop has to deal with people who are politicians in their own diocese.—