U.S. bishops: ‘The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority.’

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, responds to a question during a news conference at the fall general assembly of the USCCB in Baltimore Nov. 12, 2019. Also pictured are: Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., and Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford, Conn. (CNS photo/Bob Roller) Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president-elect of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, responds to a question during a news conference at the fall general assembly of the USCCB in Baltimore Nov. 12, 2019. Also pictured are: Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, N.J., and Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford, Conn. (CNS photo/Bob Roller) 

The “threat of abortion” is the “preeminent priority” for U.S. bishops, according to a new letter adopted on Nov. 12 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The letter will serve as an introduction to a voting guide to be issued ahead of the 2020 elections. But that language drew opposition from some bishops who said it does not reflect the priorities of Pope Francis.

“The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family and because of the number of lives destroyed,” the letter reads. “At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”

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But at least two bishops expressed concern to the full body of bishops on Tuesday that the letter fails to reflect the manner Pope Francis suggests life issues should be addressed.

Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago and a strong ally of the pope, had urged the drafting committee in modifications made available to the media on Nov. 11 to insert paragraph 101 from “Gaudete et Exsultate,” the 2018 apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis, in order to demonstrate the U.S. bishops’ commitment to the pope’s vision.

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In that document, Francis writes that the church’s “defense of the innocent unborn” must be “clear, firm and passionate,” but the pope also calls the lives of the poor, those already born, the elderly and the destitute “equally sacred.”

Speaking to the full body of bishops on Nov. 12, Cardinal Cupich said he was not satisfied by the paraphrasing of that paragraph written by the letter’s drafting committee, reiterating his suggestion that the full paragraph be inserted into the letter. The cardinal referenced a speech given to U.S. bishops on Nov. 11 by the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, in which he urged them to consider “practically” how they have “received the magisterium of Pope Francis.”

U.S. bishops: “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself.... At the same time, we cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty and the death penalty.”

“This is a magisterial teaching of Pope Francis,” Cardinal Cupich said. “And I think we can all benefit from it as we speak to our people about the issues.”

He called attention to the final line of the paragraph, which reads, “We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty.”

Speaking after Cardinal Cupich, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego took exception with the letter’s framing of abortion as the bishops’ “preeminent” concern. He said that the letter will be used by some Catholics to advance the idea that abortion is more important than other social issues.

“It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world. In Catholic Social Teaching, it is not,” he said. Bishop McElroy said that the pope takes a different view, and voiced support for adding the full paragraph from “Gaudete et Exsultate.”

“Let’s at least give the pope a fighting chance with his view,” Bishop McElroy said.

But Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said that while he agrees with the paragraph in question, he called Bishop McElroy’s assessment untrue.

“I’m certainly against anyone stating that our saying [abortion is] preeminent is contrary to the teaching of the pope,” he said. “That isn’t true. It sets up an artificial battle between the bishops conference of the United States and the Holy Father, which isn’t true.

“We do support the Holy Father completely. What [Pope Francis] 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,” Archbishop Chaput said to applause.

Archbishop José Gomez, who earlier on Tuesday had been elected president of the U.S.C.C.B., said, “Obviously we support the teachings of Pope Francis.”

Speaking at a press conference on Nov. 12, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark responded to a question about whether abortion is the “preeminent priority” for U.S. bishops by saying that based on the decision to include that language in the letter, it was. But, he said, “it is not in any way to be interpreted as one-issue politics.”

“We are at a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle to make a real challenge to Roe v. Wade.... We should not dilute our efforts to protect the unborn.”

“The challenge is to help people who want to, maybe with a lot of good will, consider [abortion] the single issue, to consider others,” he said. Asked if he agreed with Bishop McElroy’s intervention earlier in the day, Cardinal Tobin said, “I think Bishop McElroy was warning against exclusive choices, either/or, or highlighting something to the point that other issues disappear.

“If I understood his intention correctly, he was right,” he added.

In a vote deciding whether to keep the draft letter as it was presented or modifying it to reflect Cardinal Cupich’s proposed change, the bishops voted 143 to 69 to keep the language, with four bishops abstaining. The bishops then voted to adopt the letter, 207 to 24, with five bishops abstaining.

How forcefully to describe the church’s opposition to abortion was a topic of debate during the editing process. The phrase “preeminent priority” was added to the letter after at least four bishops—Archbishop Joseph Naumann, Archbishop Paul Coakley, Archbishop Alexander Sample and Bishop James Conley—submitted amendments requesting the change. Archbishop Sample offered an explanation for the request.

“We are at a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle to make a real challenge to Roe v. Wade, given the possible changes to the Supreme Court,” he wrote. “We should not dilute our efforts to protect the unborn.”

Archbishop Gomez, who heads the drafting committee for the letter, said in response that the group feared that including the full paragraph from “Gaudete et Exsultate” would make the three-page document too long.

The final text of the U.S.C.C.B. letter reads: “The call to holiness, [Francis] writes, requires a ‘firm and passionate’ defense of ‘the innocent unborn.’ ‘Equally sacred,’ he further states, are ‘the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.’”

The letter, which will introduce a more than 40-page voting guide, originally drafted in 2007 and revised in 2011, devotes two paragraphs to abortion and one to migration. The letter states that the United States “must ensure that we receive refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants in light of the teachings of Christ and the church while assuring the security of our citizens.”

A number of other issues are mentioned in a single paragraph, including racism, religious freedom, global peace, gun violence, xenophobia capital punishment, the churchs’ teaching that marriage exists only between one man and one woman and the environment.

On that last issue, which has been a priority of Pope Francis since the start of his pontificate, the bishops wrote: “We must urgently find ways to care better for God’s creation, especially those most impacted by climate change—the poor—and protect our common home.”

At least one cardinal had urged the drafting committee to use stronger language about the environment during the first round of edits. Asked about climate change during a press conference Nov. 11, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who is wrapping up his three-year term as U.S.C.C.B. president at this meeting, said that among bishops, there is “a sense of its radically growing importance.” But he said he was “not so sure” that it had reached a sense of urgency in the conference.

The letter states, “Everyone living in this country is called to participate in public life and contribute to the common good,” but it stopped short of saying Catholics have a duty to vote. The original draft of the letter included the line, “Voting is a hard won right: use it!”

But at least two bishops took issue with the line, submitting amendments asking it to be deleted. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said the line “suggests that citizens must vote and fails to recognize that some may refuse to do so as a legitimate form of protest or a political statement in conscience.” The line was deleted in the final version of the letter.

A call to civility is also present in the letter, paraphrasing a prayer commonly attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

“Where we live, work, and worship, we strive to understand before seeking to be understood, to treat with respect those with whom we disagree, to dismantle stereotypes, and to build productive conversation in place of vitriol,” the letter reads.

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