Catholic bishops address colleges, Mideast, criminal justice, abortion

Posted: Friday, November 17, 2000

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Catholic bishops Wednesday discussed doctrinal limits for church-related colleges and hospitals, issuing statements on a series of contentious public issues.

In a resolution endorsing the Mideast peace process, the hierarchy for the first time called for ''the establishment of an internationally recognized Palestinian state'' as well as the right of Israel to exist ''within secure borders.''

A 1989 policy statement spoke only of a Palestinian ''homeland.'' Cardinal Bernard Law, who chaired the drafting committee, said the change was ''rhetorical'' and continued the substance of the previous declaration.

At Wednesday's sessions the bishops also issued statements that demanded sweeping changes in the nation's criminal justice system, denounced the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on late-term abortions and urged more liberal laws for treating immigrants.

And they discussed how Catholic hospitals that merge with non-Catholic facilities should forbid abortions and other practices that violate church teachings.

The decision on hospital policy will be made next June, when the bishops also hope to set final rules for giving theologians a mandate.

Lay professor Daniel Finn of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., told the bishops that their new policy to control who teaches what about religious subjects in Catholic colleges creates potential for the worst ''open conflict between bishops and theologians'' in a century.

On colleges, the U.S. bishops, under Vatican prodding, voted last year to require that all religion teachers receive an endorsement from their local bishops. The hierarchy is now trying to decide how to implement that.

Finn said his colleagues nationwide believe the impending system will violate due process, cause legal snarls and undermine the credibility of Catholic academicians.

But there's considerable confusion over how much power the bishops will exercise.

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, who chairs the bishops' committee on the matter, said it's strictly up to a college what to do with a teacher minus the mandate. He said a bishop can announce that a theologian lacks the mandate or inform the college but ''he doesn't have the right or the power to say, 'You get fired and you don't.'''

On abortion, the bishops declared that the Supreme Court's June decision to throw out Nebraska's ban on so-called partial birth procedures means ''even the killing of a child mostly born alive is protected,'' which ''has brought our legal system to the brink of endorsing infanticide.''

During discussion, Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Neb., cited the presidential election as evidence of the need for bishops to do a better job educating their flocks.

''The last election, yet undecided, indicates a majority of Catholic people still do not make abortion the priority,'' he said, an apparent reference to the many Catholics who voted for Vice President Al Gore, an opponent of a ban on late-term abortions. Texas Gov. George W. Bush supported banning the procedure.

Exit polls indicated Gore got a slight majority of the Catholic vote.

The 38-page decree on crime, written by a committee led by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, reaffirmed the hierarchy's opposition to the death penalty and proposed numerous penal reforms.

''The current trend of more prisons and more executions, with too little education and drug treatment, does not truly reflect Christian values and will not really leave our communities safer,'' the bishops said.

The statement said punishment should be used only to protect society and rehabilitate criminals rather than expressing vengeance. ''Punishment for its own sake is not a Christian response to crime,'' it said.

The hierarchy also opposed mandatory sentencing and treatment of young offenders as adults; said handguns should be eliminated from society with few exceptions; asked for broader use of parole and probation for non-violent criminals, and called for better prison conditions.

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