BALTIMORE - The nation's Roman Catholic bishops vowed Tuesday to forcefully confront the Obama administration over its support for abortion rights, saying the church and religious freedom could be under attack in the new presidential administration.
In an impassioned discussion on Catholics in public life, several bishops said they would accept no compromise on abortion policy. Many condemned Catholics who had argued it was morally acceptable to back President-elect Obama because he pledged to reduce abortion rates.
And several prelates promised to call out Catholic policy makers on their failures to follow church teaching. Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, Pa., singled out Vice President-elect Biden, a Catholic, Scranton native who supports abortion rights.
"I cannot have a vice president-elect coming to Scranton to say he's learned his values there when those values are utterly against the teachings of the Catholic Church," Martino said. The Obama-Biden press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the Diocese of Kansas City in Kansas said politicians "can't check your principles at the door of the legislature."
Naumann has said repeatedly that Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Catholic Democrat who supports abortion rights, should stop taking Holy Communion until she changes her stance. "They cannot call themselves Catholic when they violate such a core belief as the dignity of the unborn," Naumann said Tuesday.
The discussion occurred on the same day the bishops approved a new "Blessing of a Child in the Womb." The prayer seeks a healthy pregnancy for the mother and makes a plea that "our civic rulers" perform their duties "while respecting the gift of human life."
Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is preparing a statement during the bishops' fall meeting that will press Obama on abortion. The bishops suggested that the final document include the message that "aggressively pro-abortion policies" would be viewed "as an attack on the church."
Along with their theological opposition to the procedure, church leaders say they worry that any expansion in abortion rights could require Catholic hospitals to perform abortions or lose federal funding. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago said the hospitals would close rather than comply.
During the campaign, many prelates had spoken out on abortion more boldly than they had in 2004, telling Catholic politicians and voters that the issue should be the most important consideration in setting policy and deciding which candidate to back.
Yet, according to exit polls, 54 percent of Catholics chose Obama, who is Protestant. The new bishops' statement is meant to drive home the point in a way that cannot be misconstrued. "We have a very important thing to say. I think we should say it clearly and with a punch," said New York Cardinal Edward Egan.
But some bishops said church leaders should take care with the tone of the statement. Bishops differ on whether Catholic lawmakers should refrain from receiving Communion if they diverge from central church beliefs. Each bishop sets policy in his own diocese.
"We must act and be perceived as acting as caring pastors and faithful teachers," said Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, S.D. Dr. Patrick Whelan, a pediatrician and president of Catholic Democrats, said angry statements from church leaders were counterproductive and would only alienate Catholics.
"We're calling on the bishops to move away from the more vicious language," Whelan said. He said the church needs to act "in a more creative, constructive way," to end abortion. Catholics United was among the groups that argued in direct mail and TV ads during the campaign that taking the "pro-life" position means more than opposing abortion rights. Chris Korzen, the group's executive director, said, "we honestly want to move past the deadlock" on abortion. He said church leaders were making that task harder.
"What are the bishops going to do now?" Korzen said. "`They have burned a lot of bridges with the Democrats and the new administration."