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.
Though the church spends no money on activities legally defined as lobbying, it played a major role shaping the bill behind the scenes. For example, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, personally called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat and a Roman Catholic, to discuss curbs on abortion.
"The Catholic Church used their power - their clout, if you will - to influence this issue. They had to. It's a basic teaching of the religion," Mr. Stupak told reporters last week.
Several liberal Democrats have since vigorously criticized the church, including Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California Democrat.
"Who elected them to Congress?" she asked rhetorically in a column published by Politico that accused the bishops of engaging in "more than mere advocacy."
"The IRS is less restrictive about church involvement in efforts to influence legislation than it is about involvement in campaigns and elections. Given the political behavior of USCCB in this case, maybe it shouldnt be," concluded Mrs. Woolsey, the co-chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Last week, 90 pro-choice Democrats signed a letter to President Obama calling the limits "an unprecedented restriction on a woman's access to health insurance coverage of reproductive health services."
Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, leads a group more than 40 representatives who say they will not support a health care bill that contains the Stupak amendment - about the same number of Democrats who have said they will not vote for one that doesn't.
"No one group should get to dictate the outcome of legislation in Congress," she said.
Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the USCCB's Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, said Monday that many of the bill's pro-life Democratic backers were put into office as part of the Obama sweep in last year's elections. Some, such as Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper of Erie, Pa., turned out to be staunch Catholic pro-lifers.
"It was a great asset to have women talking about this in the halls of Congress," he said, adding that these newly minted Democrats felt comfortable working with the USCCB.
"A lot of the pro-life Democrats are uncomfortable with other right-to-life groups, because of their ties to the Republican Party," he added. "We were seen as nonpartisan; a group that just works with the issues."
In other business, the bishops considered documents on marriage and artificial aids to help couples conceive - such as in-vitro fertilization - that will be discussed Tuesday.
The marriage document, which sets out a basic theology of marriage, takes stands against artificial contraception and same-sex unions, saying the latter and marriage "are essentially different realities."
"We have a need to defend marriage within our culture," said Louisville, Ky., Bishop Joseph Kurtz, adding that the document - presented as a pastoral letter from the nation's bishops - will serve as "an authoritative point of reference."
Bishops gave a standing ovation to the Rev. David O'Connell, who is retiring next summer from his post as president of Catholic University of America (CUA) in Northeast Washington.
Father O'Connell delivered a farewell speech, saying the national university of the Catholic Church had changed greatly since he arrived in the mid-1990s.
"I think the greatest progress the university has made in the past 12 years is in its Catholic identity," he said.
Compared with the "antagonism and cynicism that was present on the campus the day I arrived," he added, the 7,000-student school now draws top professors and students to its ranks. During his 2008 visit to the campus, Pope Benedict XVI told him that CUA "has become one of the greatest Catholic universities of the world."