WASHINGTON -- U.S. Roman Catholic bishops yesterday condemned California's Proposition 187, which denies health and education benefits to undocumented immigrants, and reaffirmed the Catholic Church's position that every person has a right to health care until the moment he dies.
However, doctors may give pain medication to a terminally ill person even if it indirectly hastens his death -- as long as the sole goal is patient comfort, the bishops said.
At the heart of both actions is the belief that all people have a basic human right to health care, said the 280 bishops, here on the last day of their semiannual meeting.
Nine days after California voters approved Proposition 187, the bishops endorsed a resolution stating that the measure is "a catalyst for divisiveness within our society."
And in a separate action, the bishops issued new guidelines aimed at bishops and administrators responsible for the 1,200 Catholic health care institutions nationwide who grapple daily with complex issues such as euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.
What the bishops say about health care practices has a broad effect: In 1992, nearly 5 million people were treated at hospitals run by the Catholic Church -- about 15 percent of all admissions nationwide.
"In cases of considerable moral complexity, the directives reflect the church's teaching while preserving the legitimate freedom which the church provides," said Bishop Alfred C. Hughes, chairman of the Doctrine Committee, which spent six years writing the 48-page document.
The bishops' medical document urges Catholic institutions to distinguish themselves by service to children, the poor, the uninsured, single parents, addicts, minorities, immigrants, refugees and the elderly.
The medical directives for Catholics, which had not been updated since 1971, come one week after Oregon voters approved physician-assisted suicide. The church spent more than $600,000 trying to defeat Oregon's ballot Measure 16, which decrimi
nalized physician-assisted suicide. Following traditional church teachings, the directives also rule out medical techniques such as abortion, artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. However, methods such as the use of drugs for enhancing fertility and that do not "substitute for the marital act itself" may be used, according to the document.
In a new section of the directive, the bishops acknowledged that because of the rapidly changing nature of health care delivery, Catholic hospitals increasingly are working with non-Catholic medical institutions.
In response, they developed a "principle of cooperation," which outlines how Catholic hospitals may integrate programs with other organizations without going against Catholic doctrine.
In the statement opposing the California measure that threatens undocumented immigrants' access to benefits, the bishops warned: "In seeking to cure social and economic ills, proposition [Proposition 187] strikes at the most vulnerable among us -- children, the sick and the needy -- without addressing the larger social and political causes for the problems."