UPDATED 11/15/10 1:47 p.m.

BALTIMORE (CBS) – Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George used his final speech as the outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to defend the bishops’ opposition to health care reform.

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George told a meeting Monday of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that they were right in their moral judgment that President Barack Obama’s plan would allow federal funding of abortion.

He also said critics who insisted the plan was too complicated for the bishops to understand were only trying to silence the public voice of the church.

“Our analysis of what the law itself says was correct and our moral judgments are secure,” George said. “Throughout this public debate, the bishops kept the moral and intellectual integrity of the faith intact.”

The group is holding its annual fall assembly this week in Baltimore. George was making his final address as president.

The bishops had lobbied hard against Obama’s health care overhaul.

The law walled off federal funds from being used for abortion, and an executive order signed by Obama just before it passed reaffirmed existing prohibitions on government-financed abortion. Still, anti-abortion activists argue that neither would actually prevent tax money from being used.

George said he realizes that the bishops do not speak on behalf of all of those who consider themselves Catholic. However, he said the prelates do have the authority to speak on behalf of the church and what it teaches.

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Sister Carol Keehan, head of the Catholic Health Association, broke with abortion opponents and the bishops by advocating for the bill. Keehan said the association had “major concern” about abortion and said the plan was not perfect, but supported it because it was a major first step in providing health care for all. Several other women’s religious orders also backed the bill.

A spokesman for the Catholic Health Association would not immediately comment on the cardinal’s speech.

In his speech, George said bishops should be deeply concerned about the “wound to the church’s unity” from the debate.

“I hope, trusting in the good will of all concerned, that means can be found to restore the seamless garment of ecclesial communion,” he said.
The health care overhaul passed the House of Representatives 219-212 in March, and was signed into law by President Obama. Republicans voted unanimously against the bill, but some anti-abortion Democrats changed their votes when President Obama agreed to keep the ban on federal funds for abortion.

The anti-abortion Democrat whose final support helped guarantee passage, Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), received death threats after the health care reform bill passed. He later decided not to run for reelection this year.

Meanwhile, other Obama opponents have said in speeches that the health care reform law is sure to mean more abortions.

At a speech in Dallas last week, former Alaska governor and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin called Obama “the most pro-abortion president to occupy the White,” and called health care reform “the biggest advance of the abortion industry in America,” according to published reports.

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