US Bishops Talk Abortion, the Eucharist, Synodality, and Faithful Citizenship at Fall Meeting

Bishops again name abortion as ‘preeminent priority’ for US voters.

U.S. bishops attend the 2023 USCCB fall assembly.
U.S. bishops attend the 2023 USCCB fall assembly. (photo: Joe Bukuras / CNA)

BALTIMORE — Amid a post-Roe climate and recent setbacks for the pro-life movement at the polls, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did not back down from overwhelmingly affirming that “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority” in a new introduction to its guide for Catholic voters, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

The bishops’ Nov. 13-16 fall assembly in Baltimore also featured updates on the bishops’ Eucharistic Revival initiative, discussions regarding the Synod on Synodality, and votes on new leadership for six committees, including the bishops’ pro-life committee. 

On Wednesday, the U.S. bishops approved supplementary language to the USCCB voter guide stating that “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 bishops backed the language in a straightforward vote of 225-11, with seven abstentions, with no comments from the floor. This stands in contrast to their more public debate in 2019, when then-Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago voiced objections to calling the threat of abortion a “preeminent priority” in a supplementary letter to the voter guide, which the vast majority of bishops ultimately backed. 

In their meeting last fall, the bishops voted overwhelmingly to simply reissue “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” but with the new introductory note and supplemental materials and a plan to reexamine the guide following the 2024 presidential election.

A ‘Foundational’ Issue

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, told the Register that the document, along with the new introductory note, hopefully will “inspire and encourage pastors and bishops to be courageous” and “parishioners to be faithful citizens and to vote on behalf of the gospel of life.” 

He said the language of preeminence surrounding the threat of abortion is “because it’s the foundational issue” and likened it to a house’s construction: “If you don’t build a foundation right, everything else collapses.” 

“If we don’t get it right from the beginning that, from that very moment of conception, life is sacred, if we don’t embrace that conviction, that truth, that reality, then it’s going to start collapsing in other areas,” he said.

“When we say that the threat is our preeminent issue,” he added, “it is in no way diminishing our belief that all human life is sacred and protected. So that includes every human person and the vulnerable and the sick and those who cannot defend themselves or the elderly, the poor and the immigrant. So, by using a phrase like that, it in no way diminishes our belief of the sacredness of all human life, but because of the number of abortions that take place every year and that it is legalized in many of our states across our country without any limitations, there has to be this sense of urgency with which we speak about it.” 

Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn, New York, told the Register that “the principle that underlies all of our social teaching is respect for the dignity of every person created in the image and likeness of God.” Like Bishop Burbidge, he characterized this pro-life principle as “the foundational one because if you don’t have that, all the other rights fall by the wayside.” 

‘Broad Consensus’

USCCB vice president Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore told the Register that the object of these materials for voters “is to move us away from the angry, impoverished political rhetoric that is thrown at us every single day and invite fellow Catholics, invite ourselves as bishops and leaders, to open our hearts and our minds to the Church’s Catholic social teaching and its principles, and to begin to try to see the pressing issues that are before us in our country and our world through the lens of that teaching, rather than through the lens of political talking points or slogans.” 

He also emphasized the need to “continue to stand with vulnerable human life in every circumstance, as St. Paul would say, whether in season or out of season.”

Bishop Earl Fernandes of Columbus, Ohio, told the Register that while he has observed that the media portrays division among the bishops on these issues, the approval of the faithful citizenship materials by a vote of 225 to 11 shows the “broad consensus” among the bishops. He also noted the lack of debate prior to the vote. 

On Tuesday, the bishops voted on chairmen-elect for six committees who will begin three-year terms as chairmen on those committees at the conclusion of the 2024 fall assembly. Bishop Daniel Thomas of Toledo, Ohio, was named chairman-elect of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities in a 161-84 vote over Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.

Bishop Burbidge told the Register that Bishop Thomas is “a great friend” of his and a “real apostle of the gospel of life.” He noted that since Bishop Thomas is currently a pro-life committee member, he’s “very familiar with the work.” He also praised Archbishop Cordileone’s strong pro-life stance, saying that “we had two great candidates running for this position.” Bishop Thomas said in a press statement, “I am humbled that my brother bishops have elected me to serve as chairman-elect on this committee and our National Conference of Bishops. I strongly believe that to be Catholic is to be pro-life, from conception to natural death. This is an issue I am passionate about and am honored to promote the message of the Gospel of Life in this national capacity.”

Moving Stories of Eucharistic Revival 

On Wednesday, the bishops received an update on the three-year national Eucharistic Revival initiative that launched June 2022 and will culminate in a Eucharistic Congress event in Indianapolis July 17-21, 2024. 

Bishop Andrew Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, told the bishops that “incredible things are happening” because of the Revival, following a year focused on events at the diocesan level in 2022 and the parish level in 2023. 

Bishop Cozzens highlighted that the Revival has almost 8,000 volunteer “parish point persons,” and more than 12,000 parish leaders have downloaded the Revival’s leader’s playbook. He said that their seven-session small-group video series, “Jesus and the Eucharist,” is being used in “thousands of parishes,” with more than 32,000 hours viewed.

Bishop Fernandes told the Register about Eucharistic Revival efforts in his diocese that included the viewing of the small-group video series, which has been “highly effective,” according to diocesan pastors. 

He mentioned St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Zanesville, Ohio, where “the people have been outside of the church because of problems with their roof for three and a half years, yet they had a beautiful Mass in their gymnasium, a procession through the city streets.” He said another “moving moment” for him was being a part of Mass and Eucharistic adoration at a jail with the incarcerated, because “you see real faith and real conversion there.”

Bishop Burbidge called the Eucharist “the sacrament of peace” because “in Christ alone we find our peace”; he said that, with so many hearts “burning for that peace within our world at this critical time within our own nation,” he is “convinced so many graces and blessings will come about through this Revival.” 

In the Diocese of Arlington, there had been a focus on the Eucharist ahead of the Revival for the diocese’s 50-year jubilee preparation, which included the revival of a six-century-old devotion of 40 hours of continuous public prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Bishop Burbidge said that while it was done for the jubilee preparation, the parishes are “continuing to do it too, so already we see a fruit.” 

Synodality and Listening Experiences

Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., linked the Eucharistic Revival to the concept of synodality at the fall meeting, just as he did in his address to the bishops at their June meeting. On Tuesday, he told those gathered that the Eucharistic Revival and synodality “belong together by their very nature, and they shed light on one another,” illustrating this with the Gospel story of the disciples journeying with Jesus on the road to Emmaus and recognizing him in the breaking of the bread.

“I believe that we will have true Eucharistic Revival when we experience the Eucharist as the sacrament of Christ’s incarnation: as the Lord walking with us together on the way,” he said. 

The bishops received an update on the first assembly of the Synod on Synodality, which took place in Rome Oct. 4-29 and concluded with a 41-page synthesis document ahead of the synod reconvening in October 2024. Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, discussed his experience at the synod and said the synthesis document raised “thoughtful questions of pastoral and theological importance.” 

He and Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, both pointed to the need for an executive summary of the document to move forward in engaging the faithful on these questions.

Bishop Fernandes told the Register that while “some people are worried there are going to be significant doctrinal changes” coming out of the synod, he doesn’t believe that will be the case. “All of this is meant to proclaim Jesus Christ to the world,” he said, adding that synodality is “a way of being the Church in the world that’s proclaiming Jesus Christ, but that also involves meeting people where they are.” 

He cautioned against reading “sound bites in the media” and urged people to instead read “what the Holy Father is saying about synodality in fact, versus how people are manipulating the words of the Holy Father to support their agenda or their ideology.”

Bishop Fernandes also noted that “we can have a very positive and beautiful experience of synodality, but we already see it in many of the structures in our Church,” referencing diocesan and parish councils where “the priests and the clergy are listening to one another.”

Archbishop Broglio’s Perspective

USCCB president Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services made a similar point in his address to the body of bishops Tuesday.

He said that he has “reflected on the many synodal realities that already exist in the Church in the United States. The collegial atmosphere that characterizes these assemblies, the excellent consideration and interaction that typifies the work of the National Advisory Council, the work of diocesan pastoral councils, presbyteral councils, review boards, school board and so many other organizations come to mind.” 

“One might also think about the committees of this conference,” he continued, “at least those on which I have served, the interaction among bishops, staff and consultants, have always been active, healthy and extremely useful. While it is true that only the bishop members vote, they do so after a robust exchange among all of the participants. That is not to say that we do not have to grow and open ourselves to new possibilities, but we recognize and build on what is already present. 

“We open our hearts to the action of the Holy Spirit, and we listen to that voice.”