American Catholic bishops worry about abortion views in the pews

BALTIMORE (AP) — Even as they signaled a continued tough stance on opposing abortion and same-sex marriage, the nation’s Catholic bishops acknowledged Wednesday that they are struggling to reach a key audience: their own flock.

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops rounded out their leadership bench during the final day of public meetings at their fall meeting in Baltimore, which concludes with private meetings Thursday.

They also set in motion a plan to recirculate their long-standing 2024 campaign document — a 15-year-old statement that prioritizes opposition to abortion — while acknowledging it is outdated and adding a front-page statement addressing things like Pope Francis and the teachings of Pope Francis and the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling in June, which overturned the nationwide right to abortion.

The bishops chose Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley as secretary in a 130-104 vote over Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, who had been named a cardinal by Pope Francis. It is the second time in five years that the bishops pass over a cardinal appointed by Francis to a central leadership post.

Earlier this year, Coakley had applauded the decision by the archbishop of San Francisco to deny communion to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic Democrat from that city who supports abortion rights. So was the bishops’ new point of opposition to abortion — Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, elected Wednesday to chair its committee on pro-life activities.

The votes came a day after the bishops were elected as their new president. Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese of the Military Services. Broglio is also seen as more of a culture warrior than Pope Francis, although Broglio has rejected the idea of ​​any “dissonance” between the two.

At the same time, Coakley mentioned the importance of Francis’ priorities in a press conference on Wednesday.

Coakley is leading the bishops’ review of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a document they have used in election years with only minor revisions since 2007.

While a full revision will take years, bishops approved Coakley’s recommendation to begin drafting a new introduction to issue the document in time for the 2024 election. It would incorporate recent events such as the Ukraine war and the Dobbs decision.

The plan also includes using parish bulletins and social media to share key ideas from the lengthy document.

Coakley said the new introduction should reflect Pope Francis’ priorities, such as promoting civil discourse and protecting the environment.

“It’s a rich pontificate that offers us plenty to lay out for people … to embrace the vision that Pope Francis has articulated,” Coakley said.

Bishops from both the progressive and conservative wings of the church echoed concerns that Catholics are not reading the document.

Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, a Francis appointee, said bishops need a statement that is relevant amid shaken confidence in democracy after the U.S. Capitol uprising and in the wake of Dobbs and the defeat of abortion opponents in polls on five state ballots. “It is irresponsible to promulgate an old teaching and suggest that the church has nothing new to say when so much of this context has changed,” he said.

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, one of the most outspoken conservative bishops, lamented the recent state ballot measures. Polls show that Catholics are mixed on legal abortion.

“I think it’s a solid document,” Strickland said, but “I think we have to recognize that people aren’t listening.”

The rift between Francis and the US bishops partly reflects the conference’s continued emphasis on culture wars over abortion and same-sex marriage.

Francis, while also opposing both in line with church teaching, has used his papacy to emphasize a broader agenda to bring mercy to those on the margins, such as migrants and other poor people. The Vatican said in 2021 that the church cannot bless gay unions because God “cannot bless sin,” but Francis has made outreach to the church’s LGBTQ members a hallmark of his papacy. As recently as Friday, Francis met with Reverend James Martin, an American Jesuit priest whom the pope has supported in his calls for dialogue with LGBTQ Catholics.

Both Pelosi and President Joe Biden, another Catholic who favors legalized abortion, have received communion since 2021 in churches in Rome, the pope’s own diocese.

The bishops also heard an impassioned speech Wednesday by Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Archdiocese of Philadelphia on behalf of war-torn Ukraine.

Gudziak thanked American Catholics for providing millions in relief to displaced Ukrainians and called for continued US support for Ukraine’s self-defense, saying Russian abuses have left many vulnerable in the coming winter.

At the same time, he said in a conference call with staff at a Catholic university in Lviv, he heard nothing but joy and determination, even amid the loss of electrical power in Russia’s missile barrage on Tuesday. An employee told him: “Better without electricity and with Kherson,” he said, alluding to the recently liberated city.

Gudziak accused Russia of a “genocide” through such attacks and through its denial of Ukrainians’ identity as a separate people.

Also Wednesday, a small group of sexual abuse survivors and their supporters held a sidewalk news conference outside the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, where the bishops meet. As this year marks the 20th anniversary of the bishops’ landmark policy barring all abusers from ministry, advocates are seeking more transparency.

They called on bishops in every diocese to publish detailed lists of credibly accused abusers and to stop lobbying against state legislation that would extend statutes of limitations for abuse lawsuits.

David Lorenz, Maryland director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, cited Archbishop Broglio’s archdiocese as one of the few that still does not publish even a minimal list of abusers. Broglio declined to comment.

“I don’t need another excuse because it does nothing to protect children,” Lorenz added. “I want action to help children. I want them (bishops) to be completely, absolutely transparent.”

Also on Wednesday, the bishops voted to advance efforts to have three American women declared saints.

They include Michelle Duppong of North Dakota, a campus missionary who died of cancer in 2014 and is credited with showing faithfulness in suffering.

They also include two 20th-century women: Cora Evans, a Catholic convert from Utah who reported mystical experiences from an early age; and Mother Margaret Mary Healy Murphy of Texas, founder of a religious order that provided education and other service to African Americans.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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