Cardinal Clarifies Bishops' Role in Public Debate

Stresses Collective Responsibility to Aid Suffering Church

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BALTIMORE, Maryland, NOV. 16, 2010 ( The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is underlining the episcopal duty to speak out against immoral practices in the public debate, despite the unpopularity of such statements.

Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, stated this Monday in an address on the opening day of the conference’s fall assembly. After this week, Cardinal George will have finished his three-year term as president of the conference.

Reflecting on the past years, he noted that “the political and social divisions in our country have challenged us in our vocation to keep the Catholic people united visibly around Christ in his body, the Church.”

“The renewal of the episcopal office in the Church and our greater unity of purpose and effectiveness in teaching and governing have not gone unchallenged by some who would either want to remake the Church according to their own designs or discredit her as a voice in the public discussions that shape our society,” the prelate said.

He noted in particular the past year’s public debate on health care law, affirming the bishops’ conference participation in this discussion.

“We have only very cautiously entered into details of public policy, for this is more properly the work of lay people, as it has been in the health care debate,” the cardinal clarified.

“Universal health care can be delivered using many means,” he said, and “it is up to lay people to decide which are the best means to see to it that everyone is cared for.”

He continued: “But once political leaders and health care experts decided to use government subsidized insurance as the vehicle, the means, for providing more universal health care, it was our moral obligation as teachers of the faith to judge whether the means pass moral muster, whether or not the proposed legislation uses public funds to kill those living in their mother’s womb.

“Consistently, and ever more insistently since the sin and crime of abortion was legalized in the United States, our voice has been that of the bishops of the Catholic Church ever since the first Christians condemned the abortion practices of the ancient Romans.

“The act is immoral; and the laws that have permitted now 50 million children of our country to be killed in their mother’s womb are also immoral and unjust; the laws are destroying our society.”

Secure and correct

Cardinal George noted that “lay people who carefully analyzed the contents of the legislation as it was being torturously crafted freed us, the bishops, to make the necessary moral judgments.”

He added: “Some have protested that the legislation is complicated and we therefore shouldn’t pretend to judge it. If you will excuse my saying so, this implies either that no one can understand or judge complicated pieces of legislation, in which case it is immoral to act until sufficient clarity is obtained, or it is to say that only bishops are too dense to understand complicated pieces of legislation!”

“In fact,” the prelate said, “developments since the passage of the legislation have settled the empirical issue: Our analysis of what the law itself says was correct, and our moral judgments are secure and correct.”

He affirmed that “the bishops in apostolic communion and in union with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, speak for the Church in matters of faith and in moral issues and the laws surrounding them.”

“All the rest is opinion, often well-considered and important opinion that deserves a careful and respectful hearing, but still opinion,” the cardinal asserted.

“For too many, politics is the ultimate horizon of their thinking and acting,” he noted. “As we know, fidelity to Christ in his body the Church calls for two responses on the part of those who would call themselves his disciples: orthodoxy in belief and obedience in practice.”

“We should not fear political isolation,” Cardinal George stated. “The Church has often been isolated in politics and in diplomacy.”

He added, “We need to be deeply concerned, however, about the wound to the Church’s unity that has been inflicted in this debate and I hope, trusting in the good will of all concerned, that means can be found to restore the seamless garment of ecclesial communion.”


The prelate dedicated some words to the Christians of Iraq, who have been recently suffering violent attacks.

“Ever since the capture of Baghdad, it has been clear to anyone of good will that, while Muslim groups might be in conflict with one another, it was uniquely the Christians who were without protection in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq,” he said.

He recalled in particular the Oct. 31 attack on the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where some 58 were killed as they gathered for Mass.

The cardinal noted that “two were priests: one was killed at the altar and the other as he left the confessional.”

He continued, “They are joined in death with hundreds of others who have died for their faith in Christ since the current conflict began.”

Cardinal George quoted the words of an American Dominican sister, who wrote from Iraq that the Christian minority is fleeing “what is clearly a growing genocidal threat.”

“As bishops, as Americans, we cannot turn from this scene or allow the world to overlook it,” he said.

Together in mission

The prelate exhorted the bishops: “Dear brothers, we have all experienced challenges and even tragedies that tempt us to say at times, ‘enough.’

“Yet all of our efforts, our work, our failures and our sense of responsibility pale before the martyrdom of our brothers and sisters in Iraq and the active persecution of Catholics in other parts of the Middle East, in India and Pakistan, in China and in Vietnam, in Sudan and African countries rent by civil conflict.”

“With their faces always before us,” he said, “we stand before the Lord, collectively responsible for all those whom Jesus Christ died to save; and that is more than enough to define us as bishops and to keep us together in mission.”

Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, also addressed the assembly on Monday.

He underlined “the specific mandate of the representative of the Holy See to make present in a particular Church the mission of unity and universality of the Pope, the communion of faith, of charity, and of the ecclesial discipline of the Church.”

“The past should be for each of us a stimulus to build the future,” the archbishop said. “Pope Benedict XVI helps us, recalling that evangelization is the deepest identity of the Church, and the urgency of the present time.”

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