As the nation's Roman Catholic bishops convened Monday to hammer out policy on matters ranging from the Middle East to AIDS, their outgoing president issued a ringing call for an end to abortion.
Archbishop John May of St. Louis told the 300 bishops meeting here that their role as moral teachers is compatible with respect for America's democratic tradition and pluralism, but on abortion there is a "clear-cut moral principle" that cannot be compromised.
"Don't forget the baby. That's all the Catholic Church is saying to America," May said in his final address as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
According to church custom, his successor is likely to be the current vice president, Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati. New officers will be elected today.
The leaders of the nation's 55 million Roman Catholics are celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States. Among the policy decisions to be tackled at the four-day conference are the role of blacks in the church and how to conduct Sunday worship in priestless parishes, a worsening problem as the number of priests declines.
May was applauded loudly when he blamed the media for "distorting" the issue of abortion by referring to supporters of abortion rights as "pro-choice" while "refusing to call us 'pro-life.'
"When people say abortion is a matter of choice, they're forgetting someone," he said. "Who defends the child's choice, the child's inalienable right to life"?
He added: "Every woman in America should know that the Catholic Church is willing to care both for her and for the baby she is carrying."
Los Angeles Archbishop Roger M. Mahony presented policy statements on the Middle East and on AIDS that are to be debated and voted on before the conference ends Thursday.
The 54-page statement, "Toward Peace in the Middle East," calls for Palestinian territorial sovereignty and the removal of foreign troops from Lebanon.
"We have analyzed the . . . Israeli-Arab-Palestinian conflict in terms of territory, sovereignty and security. These are political concepts, but we believe each idea has moral content," Mahony said as he introduced the statement. It would be the U.S. bishops' first major statement on the Middle East in more than a decade.
The AIDS statement asserts that confining sexual intercourse to marriage is "the only morally correct and medically secure" way to avoid the fatal disease. "We caution young people not to be trapped into following the 'safe sex' myth, which is both a lie and a fraud," Mahony said.
The proposed statement would replace one written in 1987 that some interpreted as permitting Catholics to include information about condoms in AIDS education programs. The new statement "focuses totally on the Roman Catholic position . . . and "is very much against prophylactics," Mahony told reporters Monday.
Pope John Paul II sent Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli to address the conference. While praising the bishops for their attention to social and human rights causes, he reminded them that "no particular (national) church can function independently" of the Pope. Recent tensions over Vatican authority strained relations between the bishops and Rome, but that has eased since last March, when 36 of the top U.S. prelates met with the Pope at the Vatican, May said.