BALTIMORE (AP) — Even as they flaunt their tough stances against abortion and same-sex marriage, the nation’s Catholic bishops acknowledged Wednesday that they are struggling to reach a key audience: their own congregations.

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops finalized their leadership bench on the final day of open sessions at their fall annual meeting in Baltimore, which concludes in closed session on Thursday.

They also launched a plan to rehash their long-standing 2024 election document — a 15-year-old statement prioritizing anti-abortion — admitting it was out of date and adding an additional statement addressing things like Pope Francis’ teaching and decision The Supreme Court struck down Dobbs’ nationwide right to abortion in June.

The bishops elected Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley as secretary in a 130-104 vote over Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, whom Pope Francis named a cardinal. It is the second time in five years that bishops have passed over a cardinal appointed by Francis for a key leadership post.

Earlier this year, Coakley applauded the archbishop of San Francisco’s decision to deny communion to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Catholic Democrat from the city who supports abortion rights. So did the bishops’ new anti-abortion leader, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, who was elected Wednesday as chairman of the Pro-Life Action Committee.

The vote came a day after the bishops elected Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Military Service Archdiocese as their new chairman. Broglio is also seen as more of a champion of culture than Pope Francis, although Broglio rejects the idea of ​​any “dissonance” between the two.

Meanwhile, Coakley highlighted the importance of Francis’ priorities at a press conference on Wednesday.

Coakley is leading the bishops’ review of Conscience Formation for Faithful Citizenship, a document they have used in election years with minor modifications since 2007.

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

The plan also includes using parish newsletters 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.

“This is a rich pontificate that offers us a lot to show people … to embrace the vision that Pope Francis has articulated,” Coakley said.

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

Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, appointed by Francis, said the bishops needed a statement that would be relevant amid shaken confidence in democracy after the riots at the US Capitol and after Dobbs and the defeat of abortion opponents in five state elections. “It is irresponsible to issue old teachings and assume that the church cannot say anything new when so much has changed in this context,” he said.

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, one of the most outspoken conservative bishops, complained about the state’s recent ballot measures. Polls show that Catholics are ambivalent about legal abortion.

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

The rift between Francis and the American bishops partly reflects the conference’s continued focus on the culture war battles over abortion and same-sex marriage.

Francis, while opposing both according to church teaching, has used his papacy to emphasize a broader agenda of bringing mercy to those on the sidelines, such as migrants and other poor people. In 2021, the Vatican said the church could not bless gay unions because God “cannot bless sin,” but Francis has made it a hallmark of his papacy to engage with LGBTQ church members. Just last Friday, Francis met with Reverend James Martin, an American Jesuit priest who the Pontiff has supported in his calls for dialogue with LGBT Catholics.

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

The bishops also heard a passionate speech Wednesday from Archbishop Boris Hudziak of the Ukrainian Archdiocese of Philadelphia on behalf of war-torn Ukraine.

Hudiak thanked U.S. Catholics for helping millions of displaced Ukrainians and called for continued U.S. support for Ukraine’s self-defense, saying Russian attacks have left many vulnerable in the coming winter.

At the same time, he said that during a conference call with staff at Catholic University in Lviv, he heard nothing but joy and determination, even amid power outages caused by Russian missile fire on Tuesday. “It’s better without electricity and with Kherson,” he said, alluding to the recently liberated city.

Hudyak accused Russia of “genocide” through such attacks and denial of Ukrainians as a separate people.

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

They called on bishops in every diocese to release detailed lists of credible accusers and to stop lobbying against state legislation that would extend the statute of limitations for abuse lawsuits.

David Lorenz, director of the Maryland Network of Victims of Priest Abuse, called Archbishop Broglio’s archdiocese one of the few that still does not publish even a minimal list of abusers. Broglio declined to comment.

“I don’t need another apology because they do nothing to protect the children,” Lorenz added. “I want actions to help children. I want them (bishops) to be completely, absolutely transparent.”

Also on Wednesday, bishops voted to advance efforts to canonize three American women.

Among them is Michelle Dupong of North Dakota, a campus missionary who died of cancer in 2014 and is credited with faithfulness in suffering.

They also include two 20th-century women: Cora Evans, a Catholic convert from Utah who recounted 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.


Associated Press religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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