NEWS STORY: Bishops warn Catholic abortion supporters their soul is in peril

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops overwhelmingly adopted a strengthened anti-abortion policy Wednesday (Nov. 18) calling on Catholics from office-holding politicians to the voting laity in the pews to uphold the church’s opposition to legal abortion.”We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin,”the new policy statement says.

The statement, which strongly expressed the church’s opposition to both abortion and euthanasia, was approved by a vote of 217 to 30 with three abstentions during the third day of the four-day meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The statement,”Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics,”also specifically states that political officials should take the risk of losing an election for acting out their anti-abortion stance.”To those who choose this path, we assure them that their course is just, they save lives through their witness, and God and history will not forget them,”it reads.

In forceful language, the bishops stated their belief that politicians should put their faith above all else.”No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life,”the statement said.”Those who justify their inaction on the grounds that abortion is the law of the land need to recognize that there is a higher law, the law of God. No human law can validly contradict the Commandment: `Thou shalt not kill.'” Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, chairman of the bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities, said he personally feels the”full burden of challenge”of the document. “Both the senators of my state are Catholic and are wrong in the way they approach the issue of abortion,”he told a news conference.”The governor of my state, who is of another political persuasion than the senators, is a Catholic and he is wrong.” And, he added, only half-joking,”Only I am right.” Jim Manley, a press secretary for Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., declined to comment on Law’s statement. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

As for voters _ both Catholic and non-Catholic _ the bishops encouraged the defense of life during trips to the ballot box.”We urge our fellow citizens to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest,”the document reads.

Helen Alvare, the bishops’ top staff person on abortion in their Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, said the bishops previously called on public officials who support legal abortion to reconsider their stance in 1989, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Webster decision which upheld a state’s right to restrict access to abortion but left in place its central 1973 ruling making most abortions legal. At that time, Alvare said, politicians frequently used”`personally opposed butâÂ?¦’ jargon.” But the more recent debate over the controversial late-term abortion procedure, called”partial-birth abortion”by its critics, fueled the new statement.”The bishops felt the scandal that created was more acute,”Alvare said.”The degree of incredulity had risen. This had crossed the line.” The document deals with other life issues, urging solidarity with the poor and calling euthanasia, along with abortion,”preeminent threats to human dignity.” Several bishops said they were pleased the final draft of the statement included specific opposition to those who use violence in their opposition to abortion, especially in light of the Oct. 23 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian, an Amherst, N.Y., obstetrician-gynecologist who also performed abortions.”…We must bring to our culture the whole Gospel, which is a Gospel of life and joy,”the statement reads.”Those who would claim to promote the cause of life through violence or the threat of violence contradict this Gospel at its core.” But others did not think the document went far enough, either in addressing various areas where they believed life should be defended or in giving practical advice in dealing with their”anxiety”about potential conflicts with those who did not agree with the statement.”I’m convinced it will not persuade our Catholic people nor our political leaders,”said Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, who argued the issue should have said more about nuclear disarmament.

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In other business, the bishops also unanimously approved a statement called”Welcome and Justice for People with Disabilities.””Parish liturgical celebrations should be accessible to people with disabilities and open to their full, active and conscious participation, according to their capacity,”the document stated.

It also linked the defense of life to the disability issue.”We unequivocally oppose negative attitudes toward disability which often lead to abortion, medical rationing and direct and indirect euthanasia,”the statement reads.

The bishops also discussed two controversial topics in the church as they consider future action _ higher education and racism.

They had a lengthy discussion on how the U.S. church might apply”Ex Corde Ecclesiae,”Pope John Paul II’s statement of principles for Catholic higher education. Several bishops criticized the document and said it could lead to anything from litigation to institutions deciding to no longer be Catholic while others said it was important to ensure that Catholic professors are upholding church law.

The bishops also held a lengthy discussion on how the church might combat racism. It included reports of discrimination _ from black Catholics being rejected during the time of greeting at Masses to churches that don’t want to include their Latino parishioners in official tallies for fear they will have to offer more programs to meet their needs.

Several bishops offered suggestions for confronting the issue. One bishop said he always discusses racism with confirmation candidates; another spoke of the success of small-group Bible studies attended by people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.”We are not necessarily advocating new programs,”said Bishop Curtis Guillory, a consultant to the bishops’ Committee on African American Catholics and auxiliary bishop of Galveston-Houston.”The time, I believe, has come for us to help our people engage in honest and constructive dialogue that will lead to reconciliation and trust.”

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