By Nancy Frazier O’Brien
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Life issues from the test tube to the deathbed are on the agenda for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall general assembly.
The Nov. 16-19 meeting in Baltimore also will include what the bishops hope will be their final consideration of action items related to the Roman Missal and debate and vote on a lengthy document offering support to married couples and affirming that true marriage can only involve a man and a woman.
The meeting agenda also will feature a preliminary report on the causes and context study on clergy sexual abuse of minors conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a report by the National Religious Vocation Conference on a recent study of religious vocations.
The bishops will hear the final presidential address by Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, who is beginning the third year of his three-year term as USCCB president, and will choose chairmen-elect for five committees.
A draft document prepared by the Committee on Pro-Life Activities looks at the issue of reproductive technologies, saying that although the Catholic Church shares the pain of married couples facing “unanticipated childlessness,” some reproductive technologies “are not legitimate ways to solve” infertility problems.
The 22-page document, “Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology,” is designed as a companion to the bishops’ 2006 statement, “Married Love and the Gift of Life,” which urged Catholic couples to reject the use of artificial contraception and to learn how natural family planning can benefit the marital relationship.
Like the earlier document, “Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology” is in a question-and-answer format, with a short introduction.
“Some solutions offered to infertile couples do justice to their dignity as individuals and as a couple, and to the full human dignity of their child, by helping their marital act to be life-giving,” the draft document says. “Others are morally flawed efforts to replace the marital act that are not worthy of the tremendous gift God offers to husband and wife by calling them together as spouses and parents.”
Also up for debate by the bishops is a proposed revision to the directives that guide Catholic heath care facilities, which would clarify that patients with chronic conditions who are not imminently dying should receive food and water by “medically assisted” means if they cannot take them normally.
“As a general rule, there is an obligation to provide patients with food and water, including medically assisted nutrition and hydration for those who cannot take food orally,” says the revised text of the “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” proposed by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine.
“This obligation extends to patients in chronic conditions (e.g., the ‘persistent vegetative state’) who can reasonably be expected to live indefinitely if given such care,” the new text adds.
Deleted from the directives would be a reference to “the necessary distinctions between questions already resolved by the magisterium and those requiring further reflection, as, for example, the morality of withdrawing medically assisted hydration and nutrition from a person who is in the condition that is recognized by physicians as the ‘persistent vegetative state.'”
With five votes on the English translation and U.S. adaptations of the Roman Missal, the bishops hope to conclude nearly six years of intense and sometimes contentious consultations. Each section of the missal must be approved by two-thirds of the USCCB’s Latin-rite membership and will then be sent to the Vatican for “recognitio,” or confirmation.
While awaiting Vatican approval of all sections of the missal, the U.S. church will begin “a process of catechesis,” said Msgr. Anthony Sherman, executive director of the USCCB Office of Divine Worship, “so that everyone is ready to move along when we get the final text from the Vatican.”
The final five units of the missal are: the proper of saints, a collection of specific prayers to each saint included in the universal liturgical calendar; the commons, a collection of general prayers for celebrating other saints; the Roman Missal supplement; the U.S. propers; and U.S. adaptations to the Roman Missal.
The 57-page proposed pastoral letter on marriage is to be issued in hopes of reversing what the bishops call “a disturbing trend” toward viewing marriage as “a mostly private matter” with personal satisfaction as its only goal.
The letter, called “Marriage: Life and Love in the Divine Plan,” is another component in the bishops’ National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage, which began in November 2004.
The letter cites four “fundamental challenges to the nature and purpose of marriage” — contraception, same-sex unions, easy divorce and cohabitation.
Calling both contraception and cohabitation “intrinsically evil,” the bishops say that although couples who use contraception “may think that they are doing nothing harmful to their marriages,” they are in reality causing many negative consequences, both personal and societal.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who chairs the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage, also will report on efforts to promote and protect marriage as the exclusive and permanent union between a man and a woman. The campaign includes five seven- to nine-minute videos, to be launched with accompanying pamphlets and a related Web site in 2010.
The bishops will be asked to approve a $144.5 million budget for 2010, representing an increase of less than 0.2 percent over 2009, and a 3 percent increase in the diocesan assessment to support the work of the USCCB in 2011.
They also will debate and vote on a document outlining the USCCB priority plan for 2010-11 and a more than 330-page set of specific operational plans for USCCB committees and offices.
In a switch from previous years, the meeting is to open Nov. 16 with a morning Mass then the bishops will meet by regions before beginning their general sessions that afternoon. Public sessions are expected to end by mid-morning Nov. 18, followed by executive session for the rest of that day and a morning of prayer and reflection Nov. 19.
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