Cardinal Francis George opened the annual U.S. bishops' meeting today by stressing that Catholics “should not fear political isolation” when upholding their beliefs in the public square.
The U.S. Bishops' Conference leader also touched on the brutal terrorist attacks that killed dozens of Iraqi Catholics in Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation cathedral recently, calling the act a “martyrdom” of our “brothers and sisters.”
Cardinal George – who completes his three year term as president of the U.S. bishops' conference this week – kicked off the bishops' Nov. 15-18 assembly in Baltimore this morning.
The cardinal opened his remarks by recalling the bishops' public involvement in opposing President Obama's health care bill which passed this last March.
Although he called health care a “moral imperative,” he decried the removal of the Hyde Amendment from the legislation – a clause which bars federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the life of the mother.
Laws “that have permitted now 50 million children of our country to be killed in their mother's womb” are “immoral and unjust,” he said. “They are destroying our society.”
Cardinal George then referenced challenges to “unity” within the Church on its position in the health care debate, saying there are “those who want to remake the Church according to their own designs or discredit her as a voice in the public discussions that shape our society.”
Catholic Health Association leader Sr. Carol Keehan and the social justice lobby of sisters called Network incited controversy this year for their public support of the health care overhaul in opposition to the bishops, a move that some have claimed was critical for the bill's passage.
Who “speaks for the Catholic Church?” the cardinal asked. “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.”
The role of Catholics in political debate was also touched on by Cardinal George, who called for “orthodoxy in belief” and “obedience in practice” from the faithful.
“Orthodoxy is necessary but not enough,” he said, “the Devil is orthodox. He knows the Catechism better than anyone in this room; but he will not serve, he will not obey.”
“We should not fear political isolation,” Cardinal George added, saying the “Church has often been isolated in in politics and diplomacy.”
“We need to be deeply concerned, however, about the wound to the Church's unity that has been inflicted in this debate,” he said, expressing his hope that “ecclesial communion” could be restored.
Cardinal George then said that the “voice of Christ speaks always from a consistent concern for the gift of human life.” He decried birth control, embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, and abortion as “the technological manipulation of life.”
Closing his speech, Cardinal George said he cannot depart from his role as president without speaking of “our Catholic brothers and sisters in Iraq.”
On Oct. 31, gunmen linked to al-Qaida took over 120 faithful hostage at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad during Mass, demanding that the Coptic Church of Egypt release the wife of one of its priests, whom the extremists claimed voluntarily converted to Islam and was subsequently locked up in a convent.
When the Iraqi military raided the cathedral to free the hostages, over 50 people, including 2 priests, were killed in a firefight and the explosion of suicide vests by the terrorists.
As he spoke about the attack, Cardinal George paused with emotion as he recalled the story of an American Dominican sister currently in Iraq. The religious sister told a friend of Cardinal George that witnesses saw a three-year-old boy named Adam follow the terrorists after the murder of his parents, admonishing them by repeating the words “enough, enough,” until he himself was killed.
“Dear brothers and sisters,” Cardinal George said, “we have all experienced challenges and even tragedies that tempt us to say '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 persecution of Catholics in other parts of the Middle East, in India and Pakistan, in China and Vietnam, in Sudan and African countries rent by civil conflict.”
“With their faces before us, we stand before the Lord, collectively responsible for all those whom Christ died to save,” he said. “May the Lord during these days give us vision enough to see what he sees and strength enough to act as he would have us act.”
“That will be enough.”