The American Catholic Church saved itself from the oblivion of liberal theology this week when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that abortion is the “preeminent” political and moral issue over all others, thereby forcing issues like climate change, gun control, and the death penalty to take a lower position in the hierarchy of moral imperatives.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, the bishops approved a letter saying that 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 it destroys.”
Though the bishops highlighted abortion as the most pressing issue, the conference conceded that Catholics “cannot dismiss or ignore other serious threats to human life and dignity such as racism, the environmental crisis, poverty, and the death penalty.”
In other words, Catholics must regard abortion as the most urgent moral issue but must never use it as an excuse to avoid other important issues. In the end, Catholics are called to achieve holiness and being in the right on a singular issue will not be sufficient enough.
Some more liberal-leaning bishops, such as Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, disagreed with the final statement, arguing that it steps out line with the agenda implemented by Pope Francis in the encyclical “Gaudete et Exsultate,” which gave weight to other issues while not necessarily saying how they must be implemented.
“Our defense of innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate,” the pope said in the encyclical. “Equally sacred, however, 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.”
“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,” Pope Francis concluded.
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego agreed with Cardinal Cupich that making abortion the “preeminent issue” stands out of line with the Francis agenda.
“The preeminent quote will be used to undermine the point Pope Francis is making in that paragraph,” he said. “Either we should get rid of preeminent, or if we are going to keep preeminent, then at least give the pope a fighting chance with his view and keep that whole paragraph because that is where he articulates his vision of this very controversial question.”
“It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the preeminent issue that we face as a world,” continued McElroy. “For us to say that is a grave disservice to our people if we are trying to communicate to them what the magisterium teaches.”
Both McElroy and Cupich were immediately rebuked by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.
“Saying that it (abortion) is preeminent is contrary to the teaching of the pope sets up an artificial battle between the bishops’ conference of the United States and the Holy Father,” said Chaput. “We do support the Holy Father completely. What he said is true. But it has been very clearly the articulated opinion of the bishops’ conference for many years that pro-life is still the preeminent issue. It doesn’t mean that the others are not equal in dignity. It’s just time in this certain circumstances of our church in the United States.”
The bishops applauded Chaput and voted in favor of the measure by a margin of 143–69.