U.S. bishop explains why abortion is a genuine ‘priority’ amid elections

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Bishop Burbidge
Photo by Katie Ydoer

The U.S. Catholic bishops are united in the belief that abortion is “our preeminent priority,” their pro-life chair said after they decided to continue using that language in a guide to political life.

“It is our preeminent priority,” Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Pro-Life Activities, told Our Sunday Visitor. “It’s a direct attack against human life.”

The 66-year-old bishop pointed to the number of “innocent brothers and sisters, vulnerable and voiceless in the womb” destroyed in abortion each year nationwide — a number estimated to approach one million.

Bishop Burbidge made his comments after the bishops continued to call abortion “our preeminent priority” in a new introduction for “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” — a teaching document on the political responsibility of Catholics — that they approved Nov. 15 during their annual fall plenary assembly in Baltimore, Maryland.

In years past, the bishops have debated whether to call abortion “our preeminent priority” in the document. The new introductory note reads: “The threat of abortion remains our pre-eminent 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 goes on to identify other grave threats to the life and dignity of the human person, including euthanasia, gun violence, terrorism, the death penalty and human trafficking.

“From the moment of conception, life is sacred, that’s the foundation,” Bishop Burbidge said, comparing the right to life with building a house, which, without a foundation, begins to collapse.

Preparing for a new pro-life chair

Bishop Burbidge spoke a day after the bishops elected Bishop Daniel E. Thomas of Toledo, Ohio, as the new chair of their Committee on Pro-Life Activities over Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco in a 161-84 vote during their fall meeting. Bishop Thomas will serve as chairman-elect for one year before assuming his position at the conclusion of the 2024 fall plenary assembly.

“Bishop Thomas is a great friend and he’s a member of the committee now, so I see a lot of continuity,” Bishop Burbidge said.

Since 2022, Bishop Thomas has served as a member of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities. Before that, the 64-year-old bishop served as a committee consultant beginning in 2016.

Bishop Burbidge and Bishop Thomas share much in common: Both are Philadelphia natives, both entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, both were ordained priests by Cardinal John Krol, both were named honorary prelates under Pope John Paul II, and both served as auxiliary bishops of Philadelphia.

“I am humbled that my brother bishops have elected me,” Bishop Thomas responded to his election in a Nov. 15 statement. “I strongly believe that to be Catholic is to be pro-life, from conception to natural death.”

His election came a week after Ohio voters approved Issue 1, a measure to codify abortion in the state’s constitution through fetal viability — or until a baby can survive outside the womb — and beyond, if an abortion is deemed necessary for the mother’s life or health.

At the time, Bishop Thomas mourned passage of Issue 1 in a joint statement with the Catholic bishops of Ohio and on social media.

“The bishops of Ohio and the other bishops in the other states, they did such a great job,” Bishop Burbidge said of their efforts regarding the vote.

Moving forward after ‘Roe’

Bishop Burbidge considered the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which previously legalized abortion nationwide, a beginning rather than a conclusion for pro-life advocates.

“There was a moment to celebrate, but the celebration did not last long,” he said. “We have lots of work to do.”

“We kind of knew that, with the issue of protecting children going back to the people as it should be, to the states,” he said of the decision that freed states to decide abortion policy. “We knew [our] work was beginning, but I do not think we anticipated how those who are opponents were energized … and has made this their preeminent issue.”

He stressed a need for better education, even among the faithful, about how pro-life advocates are pro-woman.

“That’s why that theme is so beautiful,” he said, commenting on the newly-announced 2024 theme for the March for Life, an annual pro-life rally in Washington, D.C., declaring “Pro-Life: With Every Woman, For Every Child.”

“That’s why radical solidarity,” Bishop Burbidge added, repeating a term coined by Pope John Paul II that he often uses to refer to accompanying vulnerable pregnant women.

“Everyone knows we’re against abortion, everyone knows we’re for the preborn,” he said. “Everyone needs to know we’re with moms in need.”

He highlighted Walking with Moms in Need, the bishops’ pro-life parish-based program that invites Catholics nationwide to accompany and support struggling pregnant and parenting women.

“Do you need counseling? Do you need housing? Do you need support? Do you need basic necessities for a child?” he asked. “Abortion doesn’t have to be a choice. We will walk with you and accompany you.”

He emphasized the importance of transforming hearts and minds at a time when several states are considering ballot initiatives related to abortion.

“We did not have great success in Kansas, in Michigan, in Ohio,” he said, listing pro-life losses in state votes held after the overturn of Roe. “We have the truth though. So we don’t despair. …The truth will be victorious. But we have to find new energizing, beautiful ways to convey what we know is true.”

Leaving a pro-life legacy

With the election of Bishop Thomas, Bishop Burbidge shared what he hopes his legacy will be as chair of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities. He recognized that his position began at a critical time, following the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling that overturned Roe.

“I hope that, at the end of 2024, my work as chair and the work of the committee can say we have done a really great job in helping people — our people we serve and the people in our community — to be faithful citizens,” he said.

That “we equipped them to allow the voices to be heard in the public arena on behalf of life,” he added, “and that they voted in favor of life, in favor of the Gospel of Life, because of what we were able to share with them.”

He urged the importance of education and information, providing resources, equipping pastors, and relying on the assistance of experts for strategy. He also hoped that Walking with Moms in Need and Project Rachel, a ministry that offers hope and healing to women after abortion, continue to blossom.

“I just have this chair at a time where it’s very critical with elections,” he concluded, “so I’m hoping that my work will be helping people to be faithful citizens when it’s time to go to the booth.”

Katie Yoder

Katie Yoder is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.