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Bishops defend church’s role in health debate

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The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops defended their involvement in the health care 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.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George, the conference president, said that the prelates must 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 at the start of the conference’s fall meeting in a wide-ranging speech that re-asserted the bishops’ role not only as guardians of the faith, but also as moral guides outside the church.

Divisions over abortion are a major obstacle in President Barack Obama’s push for health care overhaul, with both sides arguing over how to apply current law that bars taxpayer dollars for abortions in a totally new landscape. Under pressure from the Catholic Church and abortion foes, the House of Representatives added tough restrictions to its version of a health care bill.

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 claims by victim advocates 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 has also been challenged from within the church, by those who reject parts of Catholic theology and by more traditional Catholics who say church leaders haven’t done enough to curtail dissent. George revealed in the speech that he had 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 suppports 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 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,’’ 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 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.

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