During the second day of the USCCB Fall General Assembly in Baltimore, divisions among the bishops bubbled briefly to the surface, with bishops exchanging sharp interventions on the “preeminence’ of abortion as a social concern.
The exchanges highlighted simmering tensions among the bishops, which have less to do with the centrality of abortion to the Church’s political engagement, and more to do with bishops contending to appear closer to the pope than their colleagues.
Cracks in the conference appeared as the bishops discussed amendments to a letter meant to accompany a series of videos aimed at helping Catholics engage with the American political process when Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago asked for a separate consideration of one of the amendments.
The cardinal suggested the insertion of a long paragraph into the text which would contextualize the Church’s position on life issues, and especially the teaching of Pope Francis.
The committee considering the amendments, led by the USCCB president-elect Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, agreed to include an abbreviated version of Cupich’s paragraph, including language insisting that the “firm and passionate” defense of the unborn should be matched with support for the “equally sacred” lives of the poor, inform, elderly, and marginalized.
Cupich argued that his proposed wording was necessary, even if it was longer, in order properly to represent the full concerns of the pope.
Speaking in support of Cupich, Bishop Robert McElroy told the assembly that he was specifically opposed to the letter’s retention of language calling abortion the “preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself.”
McElroy told the conference this language was “discordant with the pope’s teaching, if not inconsistent,” and implied that a failure to accept Cupich’s proposed language was tantamount to a breach with the Holy Father’s magisterium.
“It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world in Catholic social teaching. It is not.”
McElroy’s intervention triggered murmurs on the conference floor, with several bishops visibly distressed.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia responded to McElroy, saying that calling abortion the “preeminent priority” was not just correct but necessary, pointing out that in the current American political context it was the most pressing concern. Chaput went on firmly to reject McElroy’s implication that recognizing this reality was in any way a breach with the pope, or a failure to present or value his own magisterium.
“I’m certainly not against quoting the Holy Father’s full statement [as Cupich proposed],” Chaput said, “I think it’s a beautiful statement and I believe it.”
“But I am against anyone saying that our stating that [abortion] is preeminent is contrary to the teaching of the pope, because 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.”
“I don’t like the argument Bishop McElroy used, because it isn’t true.”
In a rare break with etiquette, the bishops in the hall broke into applause in support of Chaput.
Pope Francis himself has repeatedly spoken out against abortion in the strongest possible terms, likening abortionists to “hitmen,” and comparing the practice to genocide “with white gloves.”
McElroy’s pointed suggestion that the U.S. bishops are out of step, even resistant, to the pope’s own teaching comes one week after the publication of a book which accused the American bishops of resisting the pope’s leadership in their efforts to pass stricter measures for bishops’ accountability last year. That book, Wounded Shepherd, drew a strong response from the USCCB, which last week said it “perpetuates an unfortunate and inaccurate myth that the Holy Father finds resistance among the leadership and staff of the U.S. bishops’ conference.”
As the bishops of the United States have been at pains to emphasize their closeness to the pope, many in Rome have noted the rise of a narrative in which Americans are cast as totems of opposition to Francis.
During a September trip to Africa, the pope casually remarked that “it is an honor that Americans are attacking me,” in response to a book which suggested that so-called conservative opposition to his teaching was organized by U.S. Catholics.
In his address at the opening of the USCCB assembly on Monday, the apostolic nuncio to the U.S. emphasized the importance of the pope’s priorities being reflected in American dioceses, and many U.S. bishops, including the USCCB leadership, are deeply sensitive to the impression that they are anything less than supportive of the pope and reject any suggestion of disloyalty. Many also saw McElroy’s intervention as harmful to the conference and even disingenuous.
“He wants us to think that to disagree with him – or [Cardinal] Cupich – is to disagree with the pope. It’s not true, but it works to undermine the conference leadership,” another bishop told CNA immediately following the vote. “It doesn’t serve communion among us, or with the pope. It’s about personalities and power.”
The final vote on the amendment declined to include Cupich’s longer text, with applause again breaking out when the result was announced, but several bishops approached CNA after the session concluded to express their concerns that the actual substance of the amendment had been obscured by McElroy’s pointed intervention.
“I had no problem with either [Cupich’s] longer version or [Gomez’s] preferred formulation,” one bishop told CNA. “But Bishop McElroy suggesting that by calling abortion what it is in our society we are against the pope is absurd.”
The bishop suggested to CNA that McElroy’s intervention “needlessly weaponized” the debate about the language of the letter.
During a press conference after the morning session, several bishops sought to smooth over the exchange between McElroy and Chaput, insisting that there was no contradiction between the bishops holding abortion to be the “preeminent” concern for the conscience of Catholics and the teachings of Pope Francis.
Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, who was made a cardinal by Pope Francis in 2016, said that “The short answer is that yes, abortion is the preeminent [concern] and the vote makes that obvious.”
Asked about McElroy’s characterization of his view, and that of the conference, that calling abortion the preeminent concern was either opposed to or discordant with the pope’s teaching, the cardinal suggested the McElroy was perhaps trying to make a different point.
“I think Bishop McElroy was warning against exclusive choices – either/or – or highlighting something to the point that other issues disappear. And I think, if I have understood his intention correctly, he was right.”
It is likely that McElroy’s intervention will be raised behind closed doors, when the bishops will gavel themselves into executive session. Behind closed doors, efforts to insist that the conference speaks and thinks with one mind are unlikely to continue long.
The increasingly serious challenge facing the large majority of U.S. bishops is how to deal with a small minority of their number who seem to be attempting to position themselves between the conference leadership and Rome, and appearing to drive a wedge between them and the pope at the same time.