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Michael J. O’LoughlinNovember 15, 2023
Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of St. Louis attends a Nov. 14, 2023, session of the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of St. Louis attends a Nov. 14, 2023, session of the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

Major revisions to a voting guide first produced by the U.S. bishops in 2007 remain on hold until after the 2024 election, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted on Wednesday to adopt a new introductory letter to the existing document in which they affirm that fighting abortion remains “our pre-eminent priority.”

Some bishops had suggested during last year’s plenary session that the voting guide, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” needed a complete overhaul, in part because it has not been updated to reflect current challenges, including climate change, and does not include insight from Pope Francis. But the bishops voted to hold off on a complete revision.

The text of the new introductory letter, which was published by the bishops’ conference on Wednesday, more or less sums up the contents of the 53-page guide, though there had been some debate over how to describe the bishops’ approach to fighting abortion.

Disagreement about how strongly to describe the bishops’ opposition to abortion mirrors a similar debate in 2019.

A proposed text had initially suggested that bishops describe their opposition to abortion as “a” pre-eminent priority. That would echo the way Pope Francis has described the church’s views on life issues. In 2018, for example, Francis wrote in “Gaudete et Exsultate” that the church’s “defense of the innocent unborn” must be “clear, firm and passionate,” but he also called the lives of the poor, those already born, the elderly and the destitute “equally sacred.”

Disagreement about how strongly to describe the bishops’ opposition to abortion mirrors a similar debate in 2019, when the bishops adopted an introductory letter ahead of the 2020 election.

At least one bishop objected to framing abortion “a” pre-eminent priority, and suggested amending the text.

Bishop James D. Conley, who heads the diocese of Lincoln, Neb., wrote that he hoped the letter would describe abortion as “our pre-eminent priority” because he anticipates engaging in fundraising to counter a possible ballot initiative next year that would codify abortion rights in his state.

“It will already be an uphill battle to raise these dollars,” Bishop Conley wrote. Describing abortion as one of a handful of pre-eminent priorities “will make it even more difficult,” he argued.

In the end, the committee decided to highlight abortion as “our pre-eminent priority” while describing a litany of other items as “grave threats.” The letter was accepted by the bishops 225 to 11, with seven bishops abstaining. The note was approved along with five bulletin inserts and a template video script.

“The threat of abortion remains our pre-eminent 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 text reads. “Other grave threats to the life and dignity of the human person include euthanasia, gun violence, terrorism, the death penalty, and human trafficking.”

It continues, “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 and education, care for our common home, and more.”

“All threaten the dignity of the human person,” that section concludes.

Voters in seven states have weighed in on abortion laws since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade in 2022. In each contest, they chose either to protect access to abortion or reject proposed restrictions.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Archbishop William Lori, who led the group charged with drafting the letter, said that the purpose of the voting guide is “to help, first and foremost, individual members of the church to form their consciences.”

The committee decided to highlight abortion as “our pre-eminent priority” while describing a litany of other items as “grave threats.”

The guide does not promote individual candidates, he continued, but offers an opportunity for Catholics “to step back and say, ‘What does my church say, what does our tradition say, about the public order and what is good and true?’

“I think that the protection of the unborn remains a pre-eminent priority because unborn children who are affected by this are utterly vulnerable, utterly voiceless, and there are so many of them who have died,” said Archbishop Lori, who is also the vice president of the bishops’ conference. “And we are called to stand in radical solidarity with women in difficult pregnancies and their unborn children, and to provide them with the kind of support and services and public policies that they need.”

Archbishop Lori said that he hopes that the revision process for the updated guide will be “synodal” in nature and include an exploration of a variety of topics, including the environment.

In an interview with America, the head of the bishops’ pro-life committee said political realities reaffirmed his view that calling abortion the pre-eminent priority remained important.

“It is our pre-eminent priority because it is the direct attack against human life,” said Bishop Michael F. Burbidge.

Noting that bishops chose to use the phrase “pre-eminent” four years ago when they last debated the voting guide, Bishop Burbidge added, “Well, what we’ve seen the last four years, it’s certain more now than ever that it has to be our pre-eminent issue.”

The newly adopted introductory letter also comments on the wider political environment, saying that elections should engender “gratitude and hope” in citizens for being able to participate in the democratic process.

“But increasingly, it seems, election seasons are a time of anxiety and spiritual trial,” it states. “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.”

The letter also encourages Catholics to “consider not only candidates’ positions on these issues, but their character and integrity as well.” It makes clear that bishops do not endorse candidates but reminds Catholics of their responsibility “to form their consciences and grow in the virtue of prudence to approach the many and varied issues of the day with the mind of Christ.”

“It is our responsibility to learn more of Catholic teaching and tradition, to participate in Church life, to learn from trustworthy sources about the issues facing our communities, and to do our best to make wise judgments about candidates and government actions,” the letter states.

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