After abortion took center stage in elections Tuesday, with Ohio voters passing a constitutional amendment protecting abortion access, U.S. bishops could again find themselves debating next week just how much attention to give abortion in their own teaching documents on Catholics in political life.
The bishops will vote next week at the U.S. bishops’ conference fall plenary meeting on whether to approve a new “note” on political life, along with a slew of bulletin inserts and a video script — all meant to make accessible to Catholics the USCCB’s lengthy guidance on making decisions about voting and civic participation.
Amid their discussion, the bishops could take up a debate they’ve had before — on whether to call abortion a “preeminent” political priority for Catholics.
On the agenda for the bishops’ meeting next week is discussion of several supplements to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a USCCB document on Catholics in political life, which was last amended in 2015.
If the texts get approval from a majority of bishops at the USCCB’s fall plenary meeting, a video will be put into production ahead of the 2024 presidential election, and bulletin inserts will be distributed to parishes, along with the publication of a three-page introductory letter to “Faithful Citizenship.”
A copy of the draft introductory letter was obtained by The Pillar ahead of the USCCB’s fall plenary meeting, to be held Nov. 14 through 16 in Baltimore, Maryland.
Some three pages long, the text aims to emphasize that Catholics should engage in politics carefully, with attention to virtue.
Catholics “are blessed to be able to participate in our nation’s political and public life. Our freedoms respect the dignity of individuals and their consciences and allow us to come together for the common good,” the text explains.
“But increasingly, it seems, election seasons are a time of anxiety and spiritual trial. Political rhetoric is increasingly angry, seeking to motivate primarily through division and hatred. Fear can be an effective tool for raising money. The most heated arguments online often get the most clicks. Demonizing the other can win votes,” it adds.
In response to that concern, the text emphasizes civic engagement on political issues.
“Precisely how we promote good and oppose evil is an essential part of answering the Lord’s call, of being a disciple,” the draft argues, encountering “genuine dialogue,” and urging that Catholics “[t]ake time away from social media and spend time with Holy Scripture. Turn off the TV and the podcast, and listen in silence. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, a crisis pregnancy center. Serve the poor, the needy, the outcast. Pray often letting faith inform your political participation.”
But while the text focuses on a change of attitudes about civic life, the part most likely to be controversial is a list of political issues impacted by American political life.
“Consider what is at stake,” the text urges.
“[P]rotection of the innocent child in the womb is a preeminent concern because of their vulnerability. Other grave threats to the life and dignity of the human person include euthanasia, gun violence, and the death penalty. There is also the redefinition of marriage and gender, threats to religious freedom at home and abroad, lack of justice for the poor, the suffering of migrants and refugees, wars and famines around the world, racism, the need for greater access to healthcare, education, and care for our common home, and more. All threaten the dignity of the human person.”
While the list might seem comprehensive, its use of the term “a preeminent concern” could spark serious debate — revisiting a disagreement several years in the making.
At the U.S. bishops’ meeting in 2019, bishops debated a short introductory letter to “Faithful Citizenship,” which they intended to publish ahead of the 2020 presidential election.
Amid their debate, San Diego’s Bishop Robert McElroy — now a cardinal — raised objection to a draft line in the bishops’ 2019 text, which said that "the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself."
While he urged the inclusion of a text from Pope Francis in the bishops’ letter, McElroy called the bishops’ “preeminent” line about abortion “at least discordant” with the pope's teachings.
“It is not Catholic that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world in Catholic social teaching. It is not,” the bishop said.
Two bishops rose to differ with McElroy.
The first was Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, who said he thought the preeminent line needed to stay.
The second was Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, who is now retired.
Chaput said that McElroy had misrepresented Pope Francis.
“I am against anyone stating that our saying [abortion] is 'preeminent' is contrary to the teaching of the pope. Because that isn't true. It sets an artificial battle between the bishops' conference of the United States and the Holy Father which isn't true. So I don't like the argument Bishop McElroy used. It isn't true.”
“We do support the Holy Father completely, what he said is true, but I think it has been very clearly the articulated opinion of the bishops' conference for many years that pro-life is still the preeminent issue. It doesn't mean the others aren't equal in dignity, it's just the time, and in the certain circumstances of our Church, in the United States,” Chaput said.
The bishops in the room applauded Chaput, who is not expected to be in Baltimore in 2023.
But with “preeminent” making its appearance in the bishops’ draft text again, it’s possible that the 2019 debate could see round two.
Of course, it will be a touch ironic if there is debate on the floor of the conference next week over the presence of “preeminence” in the introductory letter.
Because the bishops voted one year ago, at the 2022 meeting in Baltimore, to punt on giving “Faithful Citizenship” a comprehensive overhaul — a project that almost all bishops know will be highly contentious.
“Faithful Citizenship” was first published in 2007, and the bishops’ conference has typically tried to approve new, updated versions about a year before presidential elections.
But last year, bishops voted against making revisions to their document, deciding instead — by an overwhelming vote — that they would publish this year an introductory letter and other supplementary materials, and tackle revisions to the document immediately after the 2024 election.
The move was meant to delay a fight.
And, in that spirit, it seems the drafters of the new supplementary material aimed as well to delay the disagreement — using compromise language about the bishops’ preeminent priorities.
The drafters didn’t write that abortion is “our preeminent priority,” as the 2019 text did. They wrote that abortion is “a preeminent priority” — language which allows for the possibility that other priorities also share a preeminence for the bishops.
While McElroy might still take issue with that, the cardinal is likely pragmatic enough to know that he does not have the votes to excise the compromise language from the text.
But there could come objections from the other side of the “ecclesiastical aisle.”
The compromise language could trigger objections from bishops who think an attempt at compromise betrays weakness, or that the compromise itself undersells the importance of opposition to abortion.
It is entirely possible that bishops who feel strongly about pro-life advocacy might propose an amendment to the introductory note, which would replace the indefinite article — “a” — with a definite article — “the.”
If a bishop does that, his argument could gain traction among a set of his brother bishops.
But several sets of bishops would likely push together for preserving the compromise — both those who agree with the McElroy position, and those who want to avoid a protracted fight.
Still, any bishop who urged adopting “the” over “a” would frame his proposal as a way of standing up for the unborn.
That would imply that those who prefer the compromise language are not willing to stand up for the unborn — and indeed, any number of online commentators will make that point in real time — even while most bishops themselves would probably regard an effort to preserve the compromise very differently.
And while it might seem semantic, a fight about definite and indefinite articles could become quite problematic for the conference’s goal of avoiding fractious division, especially since it would be framed by many media observers as a referendum over who is pro-life, and who is not.
But whatever happens in Baltimore with compromise language, a fundamental issue remains: A set of U.S. bishops believe that opposing legal protections for abortion is the most fundamental political obligation for Catholics. At least one U.S. cardinal — McElroy — does not.
As “Faithful Citizenship” is revised after the 2024 election, that disagreement will eventually come to a head.
But while there could be fireworks in Baltimore next week, they will be only a preview of the debate to come, and not the “preeminent” event itself.