By Katie Yoder
(OSV News) – The U.S. Catholic bishops approved supplements to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” — a teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics — on Nov. 15 during their annual fall plenary assembly in Baltimore, Md.
“The purpose of these items is to address current, recent policy issues and to incorporate the teachings of Pope Francis since the last update,” Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, vice-president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and chair of the task force charged with drafting the supplemental materials, said during a Nov. 14 presentation.
A new introductory note, five bulletin inserts, and a template video script will supplement the document, last updated in 2015, that outlines the bishops’ guidance for Catholics in the exercise of their rights and duties as U.S. citizens.
Two-thirds of the conference membership needed to vote “yes” for approval. A majority of 225 bishops voted yes, 11 voted no, and seven abstained.
Bishop Alfred Schlert of the Diocese of Allentown was in attendance and voted “yes” in favor of the supplements, which refer to the threat of abortion as a “preeminent priority” for Catholics.
While quoting Pope Francis’ 2020 encyclical letter, Fratelli tutti (“Brothers All”), the new supplements encourage Catholics to follow the example of the Good Samaritan and serve as neighbors to all.
Abortion is ‘preeminent priority’
In years past, the bishops have debated whether to call abortion “our preeminent priority” in the guide. The new introductory note reads: “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 new introductory letter explains, “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 destroyed.”
At a Nov. 15 press briefing following the vote, Lori addressed the language on abortion.
“I think that the protection of the unborn remains a preeminent priority because unborn children who are affected by this are utterly vulnerable, utterly voiceless, and there are so many of them who have died,” he said. “And we are called to stand in radical solidarity with women in difficult pregnancies and their unborn children, and to provide them with the kind of support and services and public policies that they need.”
“So it’s not simply a public policy issue,” he said. “It is a deeply, deeply pastoral issue of loving the moms in need, walking with them, helping them bring their babies to term, and then providing them with what they need to move forward.”
Additional grave threats to human dignity
In addition to abortion, the new introductory letter identifies grave threats to the life and dignity of the human person, including euthanasia, gun violence, terrorism, the death penalty, and human trafficking.
“There is also the redefinition of marriage and gender, threats to religious freedom at home and abroad, lack of justice for the poor, the suffering of migrants and refugees, wars and famines around the world, racism, the need for greater access to healthcare and education, care for our common home, and more,” it reads.
Lori, at another point, added: “In our midst, there are people who are vulnerable for many, many different reasons. The reason we focus on the unborn as we do is because they are utterly voiceless and defenseless and abortion is a direct taking of human life.”
During a Nov. 14 press briefing, USCCB President Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio addressed the bishops’ role concerning abortion as states vote on abortion policy. He stressed the importance of education and the message that “we’re talking about human life, and an end to human life — especially innocent human life — is just simply not acceptable.”
“Our role continues to be one of catechesis and education,” he said. “And I think we’ll also continue to do whatever we can to influence those who do go to the polls to vote for one question or another.”
He concluded: “I don’t think the role has changed very much, other than perhaps we need to make our position clearer.”
Including the teaching of Pope Francis
The bishops’ guidance in “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” dates back to 2007. At the 2022 fall plenary assembly, the bishops voted to reissue the document without revisions and include supplemental materials.
The bishops felt that its overall teaching remains relevant and that the newer teaching of Pope Francis and current issues could be added through supplemental materials, Lori explained during a preliminary presentation on Nov. 14. The bishops will reexamine the document following the 2024 election.
In 2022, the bishops voted to create four main categories of items to supplement the document: a new introductory note, multiple bulletin inserts, a template video script, and a social media kit.
All materials were approved to go before the bishops for a vote, except the social media kit.
“This social media kit is not a statement of the conference, rather it is a document for internal use to help convey the messages of forming consciences,” Lori explained why it was separated.
No bishops asked questions of clarification during the preliminary presentation or ahead of the vote.
“I think that you will find that the materials before you today are the result of a process of extensive consultation and collaboration among the chairmen of the 10 committees of the conference that make up the task force,” Lori said. “The task force itself recommends authorization by the body of bishops.”
Forming consciences to vote
With “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops stress that they do not intend to tell Catholics who to vote for; instead, they identify their purpose as helping Catholics form their consciences.
Catholics, the statement reads, “are called to participate in public life in a manner consistent with the mission of our Lord.”
The document is divided into three main parts: a reflection by the bishops on Catholic teaching and political life, a summary of the USCCB’s policy positions, and challenges for citizens, candidates, and public officials.
“We urge our pastors, lay and religious faithful, and all people of good will to use this statement to help form their consciences; to teach those entrusted to their care; to contribute to civil and respectful public dialogue; and to shape political choices in the coming election in light of Catholic teaching,” the bishops say on their website. “The statement lifts up our dual heritage as both faithful Catholics and American citizens with rights and duties as participants in the civil order.”
Photo: Bishops pray during a Nov. 14, 2023, session of the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)