By Russell Shaw
In a meeting dominated by fallout from the recent election, the Catholic bishops of the United States approved a statement on abortion that sets them on a potential collision course with President-elect Barack Obama and his administration. Its principal target is radical pro-abortion legislation that Obama co-sponsored as a senator and has promised to sign into law as president if Congress passes it.
The bishops' statement says "aggressively pro-abortion" moves like this by the incoming administration would "permanently alienate tens of millions of Americans" and be seen "by many as an attack on the free exercise of their religion."
Issued in the bishops' name by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of their national conference, the statement warns that a measure called the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) could force Catholic hospitals out of business for not performing abortions and penalize doctors and nurses seeking to opt out of performing abortion on conscience grounds. Declaring abortion a "fundamental right," FOCA would override existing federal and state restrictions, including laws banning the partial-birth abortion procedure.
During its November 10-13 meeting in Baltimore, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to make mobilizing Catholics against FOCA a major objective and approved the text of a blessing for children in the womb.
The drive to block FOCA that is now taking shape is to some extent a case of déjà vu. Early in the Clinton administration, the pro-life movement similarly mobilized against efforts to pass this legislation, with part of the opposition a massive postcard campaign organized by the bishops and aimed at Congress. In the end, the anti-FOCA forces prevailed.
In approving their new statement with its strong anti-FOCA line, the bishops presented a united front, but their unity was achieved by passing over two pastoral questions on which they are deeply divided. These are whether pro-choice Catholic politicians should be permitted to receive Communion, and whether voting for a pro-abortion candidate is "matter" of mortal sin for a Catholic.
During the election campaign, bishops publicly and privately expressed conflicting positions on both issues. So heated has the conflict within the bishops' ranks become that it was uncertain whether the bishops would even be able to come together on a statement at their Baltimore assembly. Two sessions closed to reporters and observers were required for the bishops to air their feelings and reach consensus.
But at the meeting's final news conference, Cardinal George sought to downplay the disagreement, without denying it exists. "Everybody knows we're all against abortion," he said. "The story is often put out that we're divided among ourselves. On the essentials, we're one."
Asked whether, as archbishop of Chicago, he was acquainted with the junior senator from Illinois, the cardinal said he and Obama had met a number of times but without any "substantive" conversations. Currently, a meeting is being sought between the president-elect and himself, he said, without giving details.
The USCCB assembly came a week after an election in which Obama, who strongly supports legal abortion, received 54 percent of the votes cast by all Catholics. Among Catholics who attend Mass weekly, however, 50 percent voted for Obama's generally pro-life Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain. Weekly Massgoers are only about one-third of all U.S. Catholics.
As the campaign unfolded, dozens of bishops issued statements and pastoral letters on the election. These documents differed greatly in content and tone, as well as in how -- or whether -- they addressed the neuralgic issue of Communion for pro-choice Catholic politicians. That question heated up when Obama chose Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, a Catholic pro-choicer, as his vice-presidential running mate.
In the wake of the bishops' meeting, the bishops' policy on the Communion matter remains that enunciated in a 2004 document in which they left it to each diocesan bishop to do what he thinks best.
Whatever else might be said of it, this approach at least fits the facts, since the conference of bishops has no authority to lay down the law to bishops on a question like this. As matters now stand, the views of one segment of the hierarchy were expressed by an archbishop who privately remarked, "When the Holy See starts excommunicating all those Italian politicians who support abortion, that's when I'll start doing it."
Another issue on which disagreement, only partially concealed, exists among the bishops concerns "Faithful Citizenship," this year's version of the USCCB's quadrennial election guide for Catholic voters. Many readers regard the latest text as the best in a line stretching back to the 1970s. Earlier versions often were criticized for not indicating priorities among issues.
As time passed in the campaign, nevertheless, it appeared that by saying too much and trying to please everyone, "Faithful Citizenship" was serving as a source of proof texts for Obama supporters eager to discount abortion as a decisive issue in voting. An undetermined number of bishops at the Baltimore meeting clearly were disenchanted with the document on those grounds, though they kept mum about it in public.
Cardinal George told a news conference that "Faithful Citizenship" was a good text that was sometimes misinterpreted, but he conceded that the bishops might want to examine whether "the way we have taught has been helpful." But for now, he told a news conference the next day, "Faithful Citizenship" remains the USCCB's basic position statement on current politics.
--Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor. Email us your comments about this article: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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