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Archbishop Joseph Naumann at the National Prayer Vigil for Life Mass in Washington D.C. , Jan. 17, 2019.

VATICAN CITY, January 17, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Pope Francis reportedly told a gathering of U.S. bishops in Rome that protection of the unborn is a “preeminent priority,” while also expressing surprise that over 60 million abortions have occurred in the United States since the 1973 Roe v Wade decision legalized abortion. 

Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, who is also chairman of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) Committee for Pro-Life Activities, was one of fifteen bishops from the U.S. midwest at the Vatican for their “ad limina” visit on Wednesday.  

Naumann told Catholic News Service (CNS) that the Pope agreed with the U.S. bishops “identifying the protection of the unborn as a preeminent priority.”

 Naumann reported that Pope Francis was then “truly kind of stunned” when Naumann told him that an estimated 61 million abortions have taken place in the United States. 

Near the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis said in a 2013 interview that the Church was “obsessed” with opposing “abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.” In 2017, he claimed that challenges faced by refugees and migrants are the “greatest tragedy since that of World War II” and has spoken and written in an alarmist tone about climate change. In his 2018 apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate,” the Pope indicated that caring for migrants and the poor is as “equally sacred” a pursuit as opposing abortion. “Our defense of the innocent unborn, for example, needs to be clear, firm and passionate. Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned,” he wrote. 

Perhaps sensing the need to explain the seeming paradoxical portrait of the Pope emerging from the meeting, Naumann acknowledged that Pope Francis has previously elevated other issues.   

“I think sometimes as he elevates those things, people mistakenly think, ‘Well, that means that the abortion issue will become less important,'” Naumann told CNS. 

The issue remains an important one and has proven to be a flashpoint among U.S. bishops, some of whom have used Pope Francis’ previous statements to deny that abortion remains the preeminent life issue of the day.

At the most recent gathering of the USCCB in November, a disagreement erupted revealing how the current pontificate had divided them on fighting abortion as a social justice priority. They voted 143-69 against including a full quote by Pope Francis in their document on citizenship that downplayed abortion and which one bishop argued was necessary to keep the bishops' priorities in line with the Pope's. 

Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego objected, saying, “It is not Catholic teaching that abortion is the pre-eminent issue that we face as the world in Catholic social teaching. It is not.” 

McElroy said he believed that saying the threat of abortion is the USCCB’s “pre-eminent priority” is “at least discordant with the pope’s teaching if not inconsistent” and that it is a “grave disservice to our people if we’re trying to communicate to them what the Magisterium teaches.”

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, Missouri, who was present at this week’s ad limina meeting at the Vatican reported that regarding abortion, Pope Francis “simply reiterated what he’s already said in many different ways,” that “without life, what other rights are there? So, you have to begin with that. 

“It’s not the only issue — I don’t think anybody has ever said that,” continued McKnight.  “But when you’re looking at the core beliefs and the more essential rights, the right to life of the unborn is very important.”

Pope Francis, “put it in a very beautiful way: Do we always want to simply eliminate those who are inconvenient?” said McKnight. “And, unfortunately, that’s part of our culture in the United States — the practice, the habit, if you will, of just eliminating the uncomfortable, the unwanted, as the solution. And we’re called to be better than that. We as a country are better than that.”

When the U.S. bishops say, “the right to life is the ‘preeminent issue,’” that word is “carefully chosen,” said McKnight.  

“We want to avoid the perspective or the understanding that it’s the only issue — because it is not,” he added. 

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis, said that while the Pope talked about abortion as a preeminent issue, at the same time he said there’s another significant issue and that would be ‘transgender’ — where we are trying to make all human beings the same, it makes no difference, you can be whoever you want to be.”

Carlson explained that the Pope said that the beliefs of those who promote transgenderism “fly in the face of what (St.) John Paul II talked about on complementarity and it would fly in the face of the dignity of the woman and the dignity of the man, that we could just change into whatever we wanted.”