WASHINGTON, Nov. 12 (RNS)--When more than 300 bishops, archbishops and cardinals converge here Monday for the annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States will face a number of controversial issues.

Topping the list for the Monday through Thursday meeting will be a discussion on whether Catholic and secular hospitals that choose to merge will be able to provide tubal ligations, or tube-tying, to female patients.

Although the bishops will probably not vote on the matter until they meet again next summer, the discussion has already fueled concern by supporters of legal abortion that the Vatican is trying to dictate healthcare in U.S. hospitals.

"Serious consideration should be given to whether hospitals that choose to follow these [revisions] should be eligible to participate in government-funded programs," said a memo from Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

The Catholic Health Association is also concerned that the proposed revisions would make it harder for Catholic hospitals to merge with secular facilities, and that it could lead to the end of all women's services at Catholic hospitals.

Also on the bishops' agenda will be a document on "Responsibility, Rehabilitation, Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice." The bishops, who have long taken a strong stand against capital punishment, are trying to reinforce church teaching in a society where most Americans support the death penalty.

"Catholics are gradually increasing in their opposition to the death penalty, but the bishops as teachers still have an uphill battle in that regard," said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops.

Bishops will also discuss a statement on "Unity in Diversity: Welcoming the Immigrant Church in the U.S.," as a follow-up to the massive Encuentro 2000 conference this past summer that celebrated the rapidly emerging ethnic -- in particular the Hispanic -- church.

Also on the agenda:

  • A resolution on immigration reform.
  • A statement on the Sudan.
  • New guidelines on church art and architecture in a document called "Built of Living Stones."
  • The bishops will face a public relations headache with planned protests by Soulforce, an ecumenical gay rights group urging greater inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the Christian church.

    Soulforce and Dignity/USA, a lay Catholic organization, plan to protest outside the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception as bishops gather for Mass, and will continue outside the shrine as the bishops meet in downtown Washington.

    The Rev. Mel White, founder of Soulforce, said protesters will stand outside the church in silent prayer, holding signs with the names of all the U.S. bishops. White, in a letter, told Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, president of the bishops conference, that Catholic teachings against homosexuals must stop.

    "You are my brother in Christ, but Roman Catholic teachings are killing us," White wrote. "They ignore all the scientific, historic, pastoral and even biblical evidence that we are God's children, too. ..."

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