In the News 2009

Catholic Bishops Claim Moral Authority Amidst ‘Confusion’


Responding to scientific advances and widespread “confusion” among their flocks, U.S. Catholic bishops today issued detailed guidelines on marriage, reproductive technologies and health care for severely brain-damaged patients.

The bishops gathered here for their semi-annual meeting also heard a preliminary report on the “causes and contexts” of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that resulted in some 14,000 abuse claims and cost the church $2.6 billion since 1950.

Researchers from New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice told the nearly 300 members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that homosexual orientation should not be linked to the sexual abuse, even as some church leaders have sought to make a link between gay priests and sexual abuse.

“What we are suggesting is that the idea of sexual identity be separated from the problem of sexual abuse,” said Margaret Smith of John Jay College. “At this point, we do not find a connection between homosexual identity and the increased likelihood of subsequent abuse from the data that we have right now.”

Since the abuse scandal erupted in the USA in 2002, the Vatican has barred seminarians with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies,” and conducted an investigation of seminaries that concluded that “difficulties” related to “homosexual behavior” had been largely “overcome.”

Noting the decline in accusations against Catholic priests, Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., said the report shows that “the worst of this is behind us … I think it’s safe to say that there is no safer place for a child today than in the Catholic Church.”

While acknowledging some lingering damage from the abuse scandal, the bishops have forcefully asserted their role as moral arbiters for the nation’s 67 million Catholics. In fact, church members who seek independence from the Catholic hierarchy are “less than fully Catholic,” Cardinal Francis George, the bishops’ president, said Monday.

George’s comments come as Catholics are deeply divided in a number of high-profile political issues — including gay marriage, health care, and abortion — and increasingly willing to publicly challenge their bishops.

“You only have to look at Congress, or any state in the country to see a number of Catholics who vote against the deeply rooted fundamentals of our faith,” said Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J.

“The fact that there is such very public confusion (on Catholic teaching) is a matter of deep concern for us.”

By a tally of 180 to 45, with three abstentions, the bishops approved a 57-page “pastoral letter” on marriage that largely restates traditional Catholic teaching on matrimony and family life. The bishops said “far too many people do not understand what it means to say that marriage — both as a natural institution and a Christian sacrament — is a blessing and a gift from God,” the letter reads.

In particular, divorce, cohabitation, contraception and same-sex unions have been gaining acceptance among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, to the bishops’ chagrin.

“One of the most troubling developments in contemporary culture is the proposition that persons of the same sex can “marry,’ ” the bishops’ letter reads. “This proposal redefines the nature of marriage and the family, and, as a result, harms both the intrinsic dignity of every human person and the common good of society.”

Retired Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn unsuccessfully tried to strike portions of the letter that warn of dire consequences should same-sex marriage become widely accepted. “In general, (a) pastoral letter ought to restrict itself to the church’s teaching, not arguing or emphasizing the “threats’ of some sex relationships, most of which are not evidence-based,” Sullivan wrote, according to a list of failed amendments released by the bishops conference.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said most Catholics respect the bishops and listen to their teachings, but do not necessarily share their views. “The bishops have failed to convince the people in the pews on abortion, failed to convince them about contraception, and failed to convince them on reproductive technologies.”

Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, who chairs the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, acknowledged “great confusion among lay Catholics regarding the church’s teaching on human reproductive technologies.”

“There is a need to help Catholics understand specific differences between the Catholic understanding and a secular understanding of human life,” Rigali said. By a vote of 220-4, with three abstentions, the bishops approved a brief document aimed educating Catholics on why the church denounces in vitro fertilization, cloning and “other morally problematic techniques.”

Wading into another controversial area, the bishops approved by a vote of 219 to 4 revised guidelines for treating chronically ill and dying patients. The guidelines recall the fierce public debate over Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman who was in a persistent vegetative state for several years before her husband removed her feeding tube.

“As a general rule, there is an obligation to provide patients with food and water,” even if the patient is in a “persistent vegetative state” and cannot take food orally,” the bishops wrote.

The article appeared in Religion News Service and USA Today.

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