The Catholic bishops want to negotiate a new contract with the State's Crisis Pregnancy Agency (CPA) worth almost €700,000 a year.
But the Irish episcopal conference has instructed its chief negotiator, Bishop John Fleming, not to sign a new contract with CPA chiefs unless the church's "absolute" opposition to abortion is respected.
Bishop Fleming was mandated by his colleagues at last week's conference in Maynooth to secure a guarantee that the anti-abortion ethos of CURA, the church's pregnancy counselling agency, is completely protected in the new contract.
If Bishop Fleming, CURA's president, fails to clinch a funding deal on these uncompromising terms at a crucial meeting scheduled for this week with CPA chiefs, the bishops plan to hold special collections in all parish churches to maintain its counselling services.
Last night the Irish Independent learned that CURA's previous contract valued at €654,000 last year, has expired, and that its services provided by 400 volunteers in 16 centres throughout the country have received no public funding from the State since last June.
The first indications of the seriousness of a potentially divisive Church-State clash over abortion were signalled last night in a surprise statement issued from Maynooth in the names of all 32 bishops.
Noting that in CURA's 30 years' existence, its brand-name 'CURA Cares' was not just a slogan, but a course of action, the bishops insisted that they were "determined" to continue its work without in any way compromising the Catholic faith and the pro-life principles that have motivated it from the beginning.
"CURA can justly claim that it has consistently offered compassionate and practical care to pregnant women and to their unborn children," the bishops said.
From the Christian point of view, the bishops stressed, compassion in crisis pregnancy counselling meant caring for both the mother and her unborn child.
"You cannot have a true Christian compassion if the right to life of the unborn child is not recognised as an absolute."
This unexpected statement was released in conjunction with a pastoral letter, thousands of which were distributed at Sunday Masses throughout the Republic and Northern Ireland as part of 'A Day for Life' campaign in coordination with the bishops of England, Wales and Scotland.
Last night a spokesman for the bishops confirmed that this latest release was "an unequivocal statement" which had received major attention at last week's Maynooth meeting.
"This latest statement underpins the absolute ethical protection of CURA's pregnancy counselling services which do not offer advice on abortion," the spokesman added.
He revealed that the funding issue has been the subject of eight meetings between CURA and the CPA, as well as volumes of correspondence.
But the spokesman described as "a red herring" a running controversy over CURA's refusal to distribute the CPA's 'options leaflet,' which gives contact details of abortion clinics, if specifically requested by a pregnant woman at a private counselling session.
THE COMPLEXITIES OF THE ABORTiON DEBATE: PAGE 24