BALTIMORE – Despite renewed pleas from some prelates to shift priorities to align with those of Pope Francis, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly to stay the course, moving ahead with five key priorities and issuing only minor changes to a voting guide originally drafted in 2007.

Priorities include marriage, religious freedom

The bishops voted 233 to 4 to move forward with five priorities through 2020:

  • Evangelization
  • Family and marriage
  • Human life and dignity
  • Vocations and ongoing formation
  • and religious freedom.

Bishop George Thomas of Montana, who voiced disappointment in June when the priorities were first presented to bishops because there was no explicit reference to poverty, said Tuesday that he was happy with the revised priorities.

“You’ve made room to explore many new possibilities for the jobless, the working poor, and the invisible poor, many of whom are immigrants and the rural poor,” he said to the body before the vote.

The third priority, dealing with human life and dignity, for example, says that bishops will work to “uphold the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death with special concern for the poor and vulnerable.”

Another reference to the poor is found under the “family and marriage” priority, where the plans call for making “the advancement of healthy family life a central strategy for combating poverty and for the promotion of social justice, with special attention to the homeless, the poor and immigrants.”

But Thomas, and other bishops, said before that vote that they still weren’t fully satisfied with the priorities.

“I find it curious that there is no mention of the abolition of the death penalty,” Thomas said.

Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich reiterated his comments from the June meeting that the document did not specifically address advocating for immigration reform — and he suggested that the goals were too inward-facing in general.

While concern for immigrants is mentioned twice in the document, it does not rise to the level of its own goal, like religious freedom. That disappointed Cupich.

“I fear that this document, especially in terms of its advocacy, is too self-referential,” he said.

And Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., said that while he supported the document generally, he found the section on family lacking.

“There’s no area of emphasis for the single person and I believe that maybe 40, 45 percent of our people are single,” he said.

Few changes to Catholic voting guide

A sharp debate about the voting guide, called “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” failed to result in any substantial change, despite a passionate plea from San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy, who expressed disappointment over a new version of the document, which remains mostly unchanged from a 2007 version.

“I believe this document is gravely hollow,” he said. “In the specific key areas where it lays out how does the voter make a decision, it tilts in favor of abortion and euthanasia and excludes poverty and the environment.”

Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas agreed, calling the document “piecemeal” and questioning its usefulness. “The tone and content needs to be looked at much more carefully,” he said. “I think we need a new document.”

That call was repeated by Lexington, Ky. Bishop John Stowe, who said the document should take into account the pope’s emphasis on mercy.

Despite those criticisms, a vast majority of bishops approved both a new introductory note (217 to 16) and the modifications to the body of the text (210 to 21).

A committee charged with doing a light revision did little to shift the past priorities to emphasize issues the pope highlighted, such as economic injustice and immigration, according to the Religion News Service.

The new draft doubles down on hot-button topics such as opposition to gay marriage, which the US Supreme Court legalized in a close ruling last June, by including numerous mentions of the “intrinsic evil” of same-sex marriage as well as abortion, which the document stresses must remain top priorities for Catholic voters.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, who chaired the committee to revise the guide, rejected calls for a new version.

“We disagree with you. It is a good teaching document,” he said. “We think the document is very useful.”

Further, he said, Pope Francis is mentioned more than 25 times in the document, including several references to his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si.

The bulk of those references come toward the end of the draft document, however, and the environmental issue comes at the end of a list of top 10 priorities for Catholic voters.

Another bishop said the documents failed to advance a single vision about what the Church teaches on a range of issues today.

“I do believe that the times have dramatically changed,” said Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif. He said that although the modifications were useful, they “have made the document cumbersome; they’ve made it excessively lengthy.”

But Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Ore., said that Church teaching “has not fundamentally changed” since the bulk of the document was drafted in 2007, and encouraged bishops to accept the voting guide.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, known as a bridge builder in the US hierarchy, said that while the guide isn’t ideal, he nonetheless supported the revisions.

“I would not want the perfect to become the enemy of the good,” he said. “We have a good working document.”

Elections split among conservative, moderate voices

Bishops voted for a slate of new committee chairs, electing a mixture of conservative and moderate voices.

Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, for example, was elected chair of the USCCB committee on Catholic education over the more conservative Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis, 132 to 106.

Murry, a Jesuit and one of a handful of African-American bishops, was a delegate at last month’s Synod of Bishops in Rome, during which he said the deliberations could have benefitted by hearing directly from divorced and remarried Catholics and gay Catholics.

And Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin of Indianapolis will serve as head of the committee on clergy, consecrated life, and vocations. He beat out Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, 144 to 96.

Tobin was a strong advocate for US nuns during the Vatican investigation launched by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 into what conservatives saw as liberal trends in communities of Catholic sisters.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, beat out McElroy to serve as the head of the committee on domestic justice and human development, 128 to 111. Dewane is something of a moderate, but he is not as outspoken as the more liberal McElroy.

For the committee on worship, bishops chose Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta over Bishop John O. Barres of Allentown, Penn., 124 to 114.

Gregory led bishops through the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the early 2000s, pushing for a zero tolerance policy and the adoption of what’s known as the Dallas Charter.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia was elected head of the committee of laity, marriage, family life and youth. Chaput, a leader of the conservative wing of the Church, was also a delegate at the Synod of Bishops, and he was elected to the Vatican committee that will plan the next synod. He beat out Bishop Frank J. Caggiano of Bridgeport, Conn., 141 to 98.

In the election for conference treasurer, the bishops elected Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr over Bishop John M. LeVoir of New Ulm, Minnesota, 126 to 110.

Schnurr is seen as a fairly conservative member of the US hierarchy. He was embroiled in a dispute with Catholic school teachers over a morality clause last year, and in 2006, as bishop of Duluth, Minn., he canceled a speech by anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean after she signed an advertisement for the liberal group

However, he has embraced Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, hosting an event in August with other Catholic officials to explain how his archdiocese was taking steps to make its buildings more energy-efficient.

The bishops appointed the Rev. J. Brian Bransfield as secretary general of the conference, a vote of continuity as the Philadelphia priest is currently an associate secretary general at the DC-based organization.

Bransfield beat out the Rev. Shawn McKnight, a pastor in Kansas who previously served as head of the USCCB clergy office. He will succeed the Rev. Ronny Jenkins.

The secretary general oversees the day-to-day work of the Conference, whose agenda is set by US bishops. Vote totals for the general secretary were not released.

Earlier Tuesday, a vast majority of bishops voted to approve a pastoral statement condemning pornography without much discussion. Bishops are gathered in Baltimore for their Fall General Assembly through Thursday.