WASHINGTON — The U.S. Catholic bishops began debate Monday on a statement decrying as immoral the establishment of public school health clinics to stem teen-age pregnancies by providing contraceptives, an issue of particular concern to California bishops.
Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, presenting the proposed statement at the U.S. bishops' annual meeting, said such clinics "take a sexually promiscuous life style for granted" and "undermine the rights of parents." The statement would urge federal and state laws to prohibit such services.
The California Catholic bishops will soon release a similar condemnation of school-based clinics, according to Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony, who has objected to clinics being set up at three Los Angeles schools. The national bishops' proposed statement was prompted by a suggestion from San Diego Bishop Leo Maher, who led objections to proposed clinics there a year ago.
The policy statement on the school clinics is one of several issues being considered at the four-day meeting of nearly 300 bishops at the Capital Hilton.
Also on the agenda is a broad policy statement on Central America, an area in which the prelates have opposed U.S. foreign policy in the past. The statement would continue the U.S. bishops' advocacy of "an end to violence and peace through political negotiation," as Bishop Joseph M. Sullivan, committee chairman, put it Monday.
Bishops also started discussing, among other items, proposed guidelines on how to handle disputes over alleged theological dissent by theologians in their dioceses and a fund-raising campaign to alleviate a serious shortage of retirement funds for nuns.
The meeting is expected to be a quiet one compared to the session last November when a controversial pastoral letter on the economy was adopted and when turmoil still surrounded the Vatican's reduction of authority for Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen in his Seattle archdiocese. A compromise solution, which restored the liberal archbishop's authority, was reached with Rome by leading American bishops early this year.
This week's meeting also follows the September visit to the United States by Pope John Paul II, which was praised by Archbishop John May, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Pope "saw a church alive, dynamic and vibrant," May said. "He expressed his appreciation for the candor and honesty with which even the occasional difficult issue was joined, and time and again showed himself (to be) a good listener."
Cardinal Bernardin, who chaired the committee that wrote the proposed policy on school-based health clinics, said that two bishops had questioned him about what they felt was a negative tone to the statement. But Bernardin told the assembly that he felt that such a response was needed to combat the thinking behind such clinics.
"To the extent that school-based clinics are part of a program for more efficient promotion of contraceptives and abortion-related services to minors," he said, "they are part of the problem rather than the key to a solution."
Particularly ominous, the cardinal said, were some claims that religious qualms about premarital sexual activity should be discounted. "This, we believe, is an invitation to moral and social disaster," Bernardin said.
Catholic parents in Los Angeles, reinforced by Mahony's stated objections, have demonstrated against basing a clinic at Jordan High School and, more recently, at San Fernando High School where the program officially starts in December. A third clinic is scheduled to open at Los Angeles High School.
The Los Angeles clinics offer birth-control counseling and contraceptives, but personnel are not allowed to give abortion counseling or to give referrals.
Mahony said school clinics "are supposed to be 'valueless,' but they are really giving values which I am very much opposed to."
Mahony said that his archdiocese "is going to have to mount a much stronger education program and get parents to take responsibility" in this area.