Bishop Robert McElroy literally walks the walk against abortion — leading annual Walk for Life marches in Balboa Park.

But when he talked last week at a national bishops meeting, he committed what some Catholics consider a sacrilege.

Said McElroy: “It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the pre-eminent issue that we face in the world of Catholic social teaching. It is not.”

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego speaks at U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. Image via YouTube.com

San Diego’s Roman Catholic leader spoke at the fall assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, rising to discuss an amendment to a letter that accompanies the quadrennial advice to voters: “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.”

Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago wanted to add a paragraph from “Gaudete et Exsultate,” a 2018 statement by Pope Francis.

That encyclical warns against those who say the only thing that counts is “one particular ethical issue or cause.”

When McElroy stood up to support Cupich, he took exception to a draft phrasing that said: “The threat of abortion remains our pre-eminent priority because it directly attacks life itself.”

Previous issues of the letter didn’t contain the “pre-eminent” declaration, he said, adding that the new wording was “discordant with the pope’s teaching, if not inconsistent.”

In fact, McElroy said, the “pre-eminent” quote would be used to undermine the pope’s point — that “equally sacred” as the unborn 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.”

He asked the nearly 240 voting bishops and cardinals to either get rid of “pre-eminent” or “at least give the pope a fighting chance with his view.”

He said calling abortion the top priority issue for U.S. Catholics totally changes the thrust of the letter “because it will allow people … to say, ‘This does overcome all the other issues.’”

But by a vote of 143-69 (with four abstentions), the bishops on Nov. 12 rejected the Cupich amendment. (The 1,100-word letter itself was adopted 207-24, with five abstentions.)

McElroy’s comments ignited debate in Catholic media.

“Bishop McElroy’s ham-handed attempt to be more Catholic than the pope does a great deal of harm to the United States bishops’ attempts to mount a unanimous support for pro-life causes, but does even more damage to Pope Francis,” blogged Monsignor Eric R. Barr of Rockford, Illinois.

“With friends like this, who needs enemies? At a time when the Pope is often criticized for not emphasizing Catholic doctrine enough, McElroy’s amazingly obtuse intervention hurts the Pope with his own critics,” Barr wrote on Patheos.com. “Francis deserves better than this.”

Michael Warsaw, publisher of the National Catholic Register, wrote that “in the name of allegedly advancing Pope Francis’ priorities, there has been an attempt by some on the Catholic left to reduce the urgency and gravity of the fight against abortion and to place other important concerns such as the welfare of immigrants or the environment on equal moral footing. This attempt is not only wrong, but inconsistent with Pope Francis’ own words about the evil of abortion.”

But McElroy had his defenders.

Writing in Commonweal, associate editor Matthew Sitman said that by adding the “pre-eminent” phrase and voting down the Cupich amendment the bishops showed their “obstinate resistance to Francis’s approach to politics, one less reliably sympathetic to the Republican Party and the priorities of American conservatives.”

Sitman said Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, admitted a political agenda.

“We are at a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle to make a real challenge to Roe v. Wade, given the possible changes to the Supreme Court,” Sample said.

Sitman said: “Sample might as well have cut an ad for Trump.”

Alexandra DeSanctis, commenting Wednesday in America Magazine, said judging by voting patterns, many U.S. Catholics consider the “evil of abortion” just one social issue among many.

“Though it is not clear how much weight U.S. Catholics give in practice to the bishops’ document as they make their choices at the ballot box, these disputes matter,” she said.

Bishop Robert McElroy speaks in January 2018 at the annual Walk for Life in Balboa Park. Photo via San Diego Diocese

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark agreed in a news conference afterward that “abortion is the pre-eminent [concern] and the vote makes that obvious.”

But he took a middle road on the San Diego cleric, saying: “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.”

Was McElroy also stating his own personal views — or just channeling the pope’s?

Kevin C. Eckery, vice chancellor for communications and public affairs in the San Diego diocese, said McElroy’s remarks were consistent with his past statements and he wasn’t “freelancing” on the issue.

“He’s not plowing new ground here,” Eckery said in a phone interview. “He’s simply trying to make people aware of the breadth of Catholic teaching. … which covers so many things. It’s no more radical than just remembering there’s a lot out there… being sensitive to the needs of immigrants, … the poor … folks who are living on the margin.”

Eckery said McElroy’s remarks sparked fewer than a dozen comments on the diocese website — “less than what you would have thought. There hasn’t been this hue and cry that would reflect the intensity of the issue.”

McElroy has returned from Baltimore — as well as a side trip to Chicago — and wasn’t available for comment because of a packed schedule, a diocese spokeswoman said Friday.

But McElroy is on record on another issue being paramount.

On June 27 at Creighton University in Omaha, McElroy argued that climate change should become “a central priority” for the U.S. Catholic Church.

“If we don’t get this issue right, in the end none of the other issues are going to matter,” he said, “because human dignity will have been destroyed as we know it if our planet is destroyed.”

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