BALTIMORE | Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, defended the bishops’ decision to play an active role in shaping national health care legislation, saying Monday that the church must be the “leaven” in the country’s political debate.
Speaking at the opening of the bishops’ annual business meeting, he said, “To limit our teaching or governing to what the state is not interested in would be to betray both the Constitution of our country and, much more importantly, the Lord Himself.”
The cardinal’s words come after church discussions with House members helped get more than 60 Democratic votes for a last-minute amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat, that said no federally subsidized insurance plan could cover abortion.
The overall bill passed later on the evening of Nov. 7 with the support of pro-life Democrats, prompting a furious reaction from liberal Democrats, one of whom said it may be time to reconsider the church’s tax-exempt status.
But the bishops served notice Monday that they will attempt to influence the bill’s future.
“We will work to persuade the Senate to follow the example of the House and include these critical safeguards in their version of health care reform legislation,” Cardinal George said.
“Issues that are moral questions before they become political remain moral questions when they become political,” he said, in defending the church’s right to influence politics as an extension of its moral teaching.
The Catholic Church teaches that health care is a “basic human right” and has called for a system of universal health care in the U.S. for almost a century, but the bishops said earlier this fall that they would oppose any bill that expanded federal subsidies of abortion.
The church’s teaching, Cardinal George said, is that “everyone should be cared for and that no one should be deliberately killed.”
Democratic lawmakers have said that they will delete the Stupak amendment in the House-Senate conference or that they will vote against the overall health care bill, setting up more possible abortion-related showdowns in the health care debate.
Other prelates expressed jubilation at how the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops’ actions proved crucial to the House bill’s passage earlier this month, as well as anger at some of their critics.
“This is a principled position, not a political position,” said Bishop William Murphy, of Rockville Centre, N.Y.
In a reference to the New York Times, he said, “The grey lady of New York has continued to misrepresent this as a fundamental change to the availability of abortion in this country being curtailed because of the nefarious bishops,”
“That is not the case,” he said.
Under the Stupak amendment, anyone can continue to get an abortion using personal funds or under an insurance policy that is not federally subsidized, the USCCB says at its Web site, www.usccb.org.