BY ANNA ARCO
AMERICA'S BISHOPS gave President Barack °barna a cautious welcome as he took office on Tuesday, pledging to work together with the new administration wherever they could.
Writing to Mr Obama on behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago said the bishops would "work constructively with the new administration and Congress and others of good will to pursue policies which respect the dignity of all human life and bring greater justice to our nation and peace to our world".
Cardinal George pointed out that the US Catholic bishops lead the largest single faith community — American Catholics constitute 22 per cent of the country's population — and that the Church is universal.
He wrote: From our experience and our tradition, we offer a distinctive, constructive and principled contribution to the national dialogue on how to act together on issues of economic turmoil and suffering, war and violence, moral decency and human dignity."
Over two million people gathered in Washington DC on Tuesday to witness the swearing in of the 44th President of the United States and the country's first African-American leader.
Mr Obama's running mate, Joseph Biden, became America's first Catholic vice-president.
On the Sunday before the inauguration, Mr Biden attended Mass at the Holy Trinity Catholic church, Washington DC, where he not only received Communion but was also given a standing ovation by the congregation. Mr Biden has been a controversial figure throughout the campaign because he has a chequered voting history on abortion but, like 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry, is a Mass-going Catholic.
When Mr Biden was selected as Mr Obama's running mate, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver said Mr Biden should refrain from receiving Communion because of his position on abortion.
Cardinal George's letter, drafted during the meeting of the US bishops in November, signalled a willingness to cooperate with the new administration on areas such as immigration, fighting poverty, the battle against HIV/Aids, the transition in Iraq and international aid and relief efforts. It also focused on the Church's role in defending the poor and the vulnerable, both in the United States and around the world.
Despite its conciliatory tone, there was a note of warning. The bishops said they would not compromise on issues concerning the sanctity and dignity of human life.
Cardinal George wrote: "Most fundamentally, we will work to protect the lives of the most vulnerable and voiceless members of the human family, especially unborn children and those who are disabled or terminally ill. We will consistently defend the fundamental right to life from conception to natural death.
"Opposed to abortion as the direct killing of innocent human life, we will encourage one and all to seek common ground that will reduce the number of abortions in morally sound ways that affirm the dignity of pregnant women and their unborn children. We will oppose legislative and other measures to expand abortion. We will work to retain essential, widely supported policies which show respect for unborn life, protect the conscience rights of healthcare providers and other Americans, and prevent government funding and promotion of abortion.
"The Hyde amendment and other provisions which for many years have prevented federal funding of abortion have a proven record of reducing abortions. Efforts to force Americans to fund abortions, with their tax dollars would pose a serious moral challenge and jeopardise the passage
of essential healthcare reform." During the election campaign in the autumn some bishops expressed vocal opposition to Mr Obama because of leis pro-abortion stance, arguing that while Catholics should vote according to their consciences they should not vote for a pro-abortion candidate.
Catholics in the US fear that Mr Obama will sign into law the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which he co-sponsored in the Senate in 2007. He told an audience at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund event: "The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That's the first thing I'd do."
The US bishops have spoken out against FOCA, which will fully federalise the abortion laws and would nullify all existing limitations on abortion. This could include, if FOCA is passed, scrapping laws requiring parental consent and freedom-ofconscience laws in 46 states.
The bishops fear that Catholic hospitals, which are protected from having to perform abortions by freedom-of-conscience laws, would be forced to close. Without public money from Medicaid and Medicare, many Catholic hospitals would no longer be able to operate.
But other Catholic commentators argue that FOCA has no chance of becoming law.
Catholic clergy did not play a leading role in the inauguration celebrations which included blessings by the evangelical pastor Rick Warren, African-American
pastor Joseph Lowery and the gay Anglican Bishop Gene Robinson. The last time the Catholic Church was represented on stage at a presidential inauguration was in 1985.
Pope Benedict congratulated Mr Obama on the day of his inauguration with a telegram, which is customary. The Holy Father said that he prayed that the American people would "continue to find in their impressive religious and political heritage the spiritual values and ethical principles needed to cooperate in the building of a truly just and free society" under the new President.
On Thursday tens of thousands of pro-lifers were expected to take to the streets of Washington DC in the annual March for Life.