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In Baltimore, U.S. bishops assert their authority

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By Daniel Burke
Saturday, November 21, 2009

BALTIMORE -- At a time of fractious debate within the Catholic Church in the United States, the head of the national bishops group said this week that Catholic universities, media outlets and other affiliated organizations that insist on independence from the church hierarchy are "less than fully Catholic."

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In an address that opened the semiannual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, implored 300 fellow bishops to "look for ways to strengthen church unity."

"Since everything and everyone in Catholic communion is truly interrelated," George said, ". . . an insistence on complete independence from the bishop renders a person or institution sectarian, less than fully Catholic."

In particular, church leaders have begun discussing ways to "strengthen our relationships" with Catholic universities, media groups that claim "the right to be a voice in the church," and other organizations that work under Catholic auspices, George said.

"The faithful need the bishops in order to be Catholic, and the bishops need the faithful in order to be Catholic pastors," said George, president of the bishops conference.

The nation's 67 million Catholics are sharply divided on a number of religious and political issues, including same-sex marriage, health care and abortion, and the church has come under criticism -- sometimes from its members -- for its uncompromising stances on those issues.

This month, a scion of a prominent Catholic family, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), has been engaged in a war of words with his bishop, Thomas Tobin of Providence, over abortion and health care. Kennedy's support of abortion rights "is unacceptable to the church and . . . absolutely diminishes your communion with the church," Tobin wrote in a public letter to Kennedy.

Kennedy has said that "the fact that I disagree with the hierarchy of the church on some issues does not make me any less of a Catholic." Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Washington has threatened to cancel its multimillion-dollar social service contracts with the District if the city legalizes same-sex marriage. Some members of Congress, including Catholics, have questioned the bishops' influential role in the health-care reform legislation on the Hill.

Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said in a statement that "conservatives, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have been presenting their own views as an accurate representation of all U.S. Catholics." But surveys show a significant gap between the abortion views of bishops and a majority of lay Catholics, O'Brien said.

George defended the bishops' political involvement, which includes a successful push for an antiabortion amendment in the health-care reform bill the House passed Nov. 7.

"It is not for us, as bishops, to speak to a particular means of delivering health care," George said Monday. "It is our responsibility, however, to insist, as a moral voice concerned with human solidarity, that everyone should be cared for, and that no one should be deliberately killed."

The bishops have shown no signs of withdrawing from debate on controversial public issues. At their meeting in Baltimore this week, bishops approved a statement that strongly condemns efforts to legalize same-sex unions, reinforces the church's ban on many forms of contraception and insists that health-care workers are obligated to provide most severely brain-damaged patients with food and water.


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