Why US Bishops Place ‘Preeminent Priority’ on Stopping Abortion

Several bishops explained to the Register why this concern continues to be emphasized in their ‘Faithful Citizenship’ guidance for Catholic voters.

The U.S. bishops pray at their fall meeting in Baltimore
The U.S. bishops pray at their fall meeting in Baltimore (photo: Matt Hadro/CNA)

A debate arose during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall general assembly about whether or not the bishops should name the abortion issue as a “preeminent priority” in their short letter on faithful citizenship. Ultimately, the majority of bishops applauded continuing to prioritize the issue, and several of the bishops told the Register why the abortion issue has to remain in the forefront for the Catholic voter.

During a Nov. 12 discussion over whether or not to include a lengthy quote from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad) in a short letter to supplement the U.S. bishops’ document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego took issue with a portion of the letter that called the abortion issue a “preeminent priority.”

Bishop McElroy argued that naming the abortion issue as a “preeminent priority” was at odds with Church teaching and with the quote from Pope Francis’ exhortation, which emphasizes that the lives of the unborn are “equally sacred” with “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.” 

“It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face in the world of Catholic social teaching,” Bishop McElroy said, adding that to teach otherwise would provide “a grave disservice” to the faithful.


‘Beautiful Statement’

Archbishop Charles Chaput disagreed with Bishop McElroy’s assertion that naming abortion as a preeminent priority was at odds with the words of Pope Francis or with Church teaching, and he was greeted by loud applause from his fellow bishops in a break from typical conference etiquette.

“I am certainly not against quoting the Holy Father’s full statement. I think it’s a beautiful statement. I believe it. But I am against anyone stating that our stating it [abortion] is ‘preeminent’ is contrary to the teaching of the Pope,” he said. “That isn’t true.”

Archbishop Chaput added that “it’s been a very clearly 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.”

Before the debate, Archbishop Chaput told the Register that “the most important issues in light of our Catholic faith are abortion and religious freedom,” and “the foundational ones really are, for us, the life of everyone. Abortion is the big issue, and religious freedom, which gives us the ability to even say that publicly and aloud in a culture that is not clearly pro-life.”

Shortly after the debate, Bishop McElroy outlined his case to the Register regarding why he spoke out against naming the abortion issue as a “preeminent priority” in the letter.

“My own view is that there were three pre-eminent issues in American public life today for the Catholic faithful citizen: one is abortion, one is the environment and one is immigration,” he said.

When asked about Archbishop Chaput’s reply to him that naming abortion as preeminent was not discordant with the Pope’s words in the exhortation, he replied, “That quote from the Pope talks about all those things in balance, and to say there’s one preeminent issue, I think, is discordant with what the Pope was saying in that quote. He [Archbishop Chaput] differs on that.”


‘Decades-Old’ Teaching

The Register spoke about the debate later that day with Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, who had added the language of “preeminent priority” to the letter.

“I think the teaching about the preeminence of the priority of life is decades old,” Archbishop Naumann explained. “You can go back to [Pope] John Paul II and several of his statements and his encyclicals and [Pope] Benedict XVI: There are Vatican documents from the congregation, all that lift up this as an important issue, and Pope Francis has continued that.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means is gravely contrary to the moral law” (2271).

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 1974 “Declaration on Procured Abortion,” declared that “the first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental —  the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others.”

Pope John Paul II once commented, when asked if he was “obsessive” with the abortion issue, “It is difficult to imagine a more unjust situation, and it is very difficult to speak of obsession in a matter such as this, where we are dealing with a fundamental imperative of every good conscience — the defense of the right to life of an innocent and defenseless human being.”

Archbishop Naumann said abortion was a “preeminent priority” because “it’s a direct attack on life that happens in the sanctuary of the family, so it destroys family relationships and impairs, really — we see this with our post-abortion clients — that it impairs their ability for relationships down the road.”

He also pointed to the “sheer numbers” of the unborn killed by abortion, saying, “There’s nothing that compares: 60 million plus since 1973 and millions still annually, so I think for those reasons that’s why it’s been a preeminent priority and will remain so.”


In the Words of Pope Francis

Archbishop Naumann also cited the “extremely strong things” Pope Francis has said on the issue, praising his ability to create “great pictures” to express his point. “He said abortion is like hiring a hitman to kill your baby, and that’s pretty graphic; or he says it’s killing with white gloves,” he noted. “I don’t think there’s any question about how passionate he is about the life issue.”

Last year, Pope Francis compared abortion of babies with a prenatal diagnosis of disability to a Nazi mentality.

“I’ve heard that it’s fashionable, or at least usual, that when in the first few months of pregnancy they do studies to see if the child is healthy or has something, the first offer is: Let’s send it away,” the Pope said. He called this “the murder of children. ... To get a peaceful life, an innocent [person] is sent away. ... We do the same as the Nazis to maintain the purity of the race, but with white gloves.”

“He’s held up other issues that are very important,” Archbishop Naumann said of Pope Francis. “I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game. It doesn’t mean we decrease our efforts to protect the unborn while we give even greater attention to immigrants, to the poor.”


A ‘Logical’ and ‘Defining’ Issue

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco told the Register Nov. 12 that the matter was “a logical issue,” saying he “was pleased with the language that was worked out because it acknowledges the importance of the other issues.”

“It’s not to denigrate or demote how important the other issues are; as the document says, it’s equally sacred as the life of the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, immigrants and so forth,” he said. “The reason abortion is preeminent, besides the extreme gravity of tearing babies apart limb by limb, is the fact that if there’s no right to life, then all other rights fall. It’s the first right, it’s logically the first right. People have to have a right to life before they can have access to other rights; otherwise, other rights will fall.”

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, told the Register Nov. 13 that he refers to abortion as “a defining issue.”

“I like the phrase that we have in the brief letter on ‘Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship’ because it talks about it being a preeminent issue,” he said. “The other issues are also there; they’re also mentioned.”

He said that while Bishop McElroy was concerned that people could use that language to say the other issues aren’t important, “If we don’t say it’s a preeminent issue, then people will be inclined to say, ‘Well, abortion is just one issue among many, and we shouldn’t give it any special attention,’ so it would actually be devalued.”

He called the language “a clear statement of the teachings of the bishops of the United States” and emphasized that it was an opportunity for the U.S. bishops to speak out on that particular concern rather than simply restate the Pope’s exhortation.

“There is a quote from Pope Francis on this issue, and so it’s clear that we’re teaching in communion with our Holy Father,” Bishop Paprocki continued. “But at the same time, this is the document of the bishops of the United States, and the Pope’s magisterium, the Pope’s teaching speaks for itself. We don’t need to have lengthy quotes in our own document.”

Bishop Paprocki also pointed out that Pope Francis has called abortion “a terrible crime, a horrible crime and a grave sin,” cautioning against people that “try to twist his words in some way that makes it sound like Pope Francis doesn’t consider abortion to be something that we need to fight with very strenuous efforts.”

Lauretta Brown is the Register’s Washington-based staff writer.

Clockwise from top left: Christ is adored in downtown Indianapolis July 20; Bishop Andrew Cozzens blesses the faithful with the Blessed Sacrament from the Indiana War Memorial July 20; the Host is elevated at Mass and adored at Lucas Oil Stadium on Day 2 of the NEC.

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