The U.S. bishops on Wednesday approved an “introductory note” to give voting guidance to Catholics, which included the passage of a last-minute amendment emphasizing that opposing abortion is the preeminent priority for the bishops’ conference.
The measure was approved at the fall gathering of the U.S. bishops’ conference, held in Baltimore, with no floor debate over the amendment.
The question of abortion had been closely debated in prior meetings, with previous discussion about whether abortion should be described in the document as the pre-eminent priority of the conference.
The text approved Wednesday included an amendment that was not publicly available, but was part of a slate of amendments recommended for passage by the task force of bishops which drafted the introductory note.
Multiple sources confirmed to The Pillar that the amendment reads, “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks our most vulnerable and voiceless brothers and sisters and destroys more than a million lives per year in our country alone.”
The amendment is a change from the draft of the text distributed to bishops ahead of their plenary meeting this week, which stated that opposing abortion is “a preeminent priority” for the bishops, but did not single it out as the single foremost issue in political life.
The new introductory note was approved overwhelmingly, by a vote of 225-11, with seven bishops abstaining.
Soon after the vote, a spokesperson for the USCCB said the conference did not wish to comment.
“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” is the U.S. bishops’ guidance on political responsibility for Catholics. First published in 2007, the bishops typically approve new, updated versions about a year before presidential elections.
In recent years, the document’s references to abortion have become a heated topic, with a vocal minority of bishops opposing language suggesting that abortion is the preeminent political issue in America.
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.
Bishop Joseph Strickland, formerly of Tyler, Texas, and Archbishop Charles Chaput both publicly objected to McElroy’s argument.
“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,” Chaput said, to applause from the bishops.
Last year, the bishops voted to punt on giving “Faithful Citizenship” a comprehensive overhaul — a project likely to be highly contentious when they take it up.
Instead - by an overwhelming vote - they decided to publish this year an introductory letter and other supplementary materials, and tackle revisions to the document immediately after the 2024 election.
Until it was amended Wednesday, the draft text of the 2023 introductory note referred to abortion as “a preeminent priority” — language which allows for the possibility that other priorities also share a preeminence for the bishops.
But that language - possibly used as a compromise to avoid a protracted fight - was amended before Wednesday’s vote.
Sources told The Pillar that the text went through the normal amendment process - a bishop proposed the change to the Faithful Citizenship task force, led by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore and composed of bishops from various conference committees.
The task force recommended it for approval. A debate among the full body of bishops is not necessary to amend the text of the introductory note.