What some expected would be a brisk vote turned out to be a lengthy discussion at the USCCB general assembly meeting on Thursday, covering the future of the bishops’ guide to political engagement, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.

At the end of the vigorous discussion, when the bishops eventually voted on the action item June 14 in Ft. Lauderdale, 77 percent supported a measure calling for the production of a short letter to inspire prayer and action regarding public life, and a short video and other secondary resources -- to complement rather than to replace the existing Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship document, and to apply the teachings of Pope Francis to our day.

Preceding the debate was a presentation by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who chairs the bishops’ working group on Faithful Citizenship. The working group is already looking ahead to the 2020 presidential election, and wants to produce “user-friendly” supplements to the document.

Gomez noted that Faithful Citizenship “has lasting value” but is too long, and perhaps not particularly accessible to those in the pews. While it does an excellent job of conveying information, he said the document lacks the ability to inspire voters, “so the task before us is to motivate the people to pray and to act.”

Archbishop Gomez noted three priorities for the working group: reminding Catholics that faith is prior to partisan politics- that faith “shapes Catholics first”, and they are “members of a political party second (or third or fourth)”; that Catholics are called to be faithful citizens at all times, continually; and that public discourse should be always civil.

The first bishop to respond to the Los Angeles archbishop was Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, who said he planned to vote against the working group’s proposal, citing an apparent need to replace Faithful Citizenship with an entirely new document reflecting the “new body of teaching” from Pope Francis on issues including climate change, poverty, and immigration.

“The way he presents those is a body of teaching we need to integrate into what we’re talking to our people about,” the cardinal stated.

He also commended the bishops for their civility in pursuing debates, saying that “Our discussion, even argumentation over various issues we disagree about has the potential to model how public civil discourse should take place.”

Cardinal Cupich, who lost an election to chair the bishops' pro-life committee to Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas in November 2017, was giving voice to a faction of bishops who have recently called for a significant reworking of Faithful Citizenship, though new revisions were adopted by the USCCB only three years ago.

Archbishop Gomez noted that producing an entirely new document to replace Faithful Citizenship would be a lengthy process, and that “the one we have is very good, theologically.”

Bishop John Stowe, O.F.M. Conv., of Lexington, said he supports the production of supplementary materials, but wants a new document, citing Cardinal Cupich's concerns, as well as "the new context we find ourselves in after the last election": environmental policies, immigration issues, nuclear proliferation, and gun control.

Bishop Michael Warfel of Great Falls-Billings echoed concern to include the perspective of Pope Francis in the US bishops’ citizenship guide.

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego charged that the current edition of Faithful Citizenship (last revised in 2015), doesn’t engage with current issues and “Catholic teaching as it is now.”

Since the 2016 election, he said, “legal and political institutions are being atrophied” and we are in “a radically different moment”, noting widespread opposition to immigration, profound racial divisions, and school shootings.

According to Bishop McElroy, Faithful Citizenship “doesn’t reflect the full-bodied teachings of Pope Francis,” mentioning in particular Gaudete et exsultate, saying that a wide variety of issues have “not a secondary, but a primary claim on conscience,” and that Faithful Citizenship “undermines that by its tendentious use of ‘intrinsic evil.’”

Bishop McElroy’s comments seemed to invoke the “consistent ethic of life,” or “seamless garment” approach of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Supporters say the “seamless garment” perspective served to raise consciousness among Catholics regarding a number of issues which threaten human dignity; while critics say that it implied moral equivalency between abortion and other issues, diminishing the significance of abortion, and suggesting that there was not room for a diversity of opinion on other economic and social issues.

This “seamless garment” approach seemed to be rebuffed by St. John Paul II, who identified abortion as a uniquely grave offense against human life, but it has been revitalized by some thinkers in recent years.

Archbishop Gomez responded to Bishop McElroy, praising Faithful Citizenship, and saying that it is already a particularly long document, and a new document addressing new concerns would be even longer.

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark indicated he would vote against the proposal, echoing the need for new content in a revision or replacement of Faithful Citizenship, and expressed concern over the “chasm between faith and life,” in which faith has been privatized.

Bishop Robert Barron, an auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles and a member of the working group on Faithful Citizenship, noted that the document is long, and the group didn't want to make it longer.

"We have to retain a lot of what's in there now, and we would just be making a much longer document" if it included the "Franciscan shift." He suggested that instead of a replacement document, video might be a much more effective means for conveying new priorities.

Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington responded that videos have to be quite short to keep people’s attention, and that “we need to rethink” Faithful Citizenship.

Bishop Jaime Soto chimed in to mention the “new paradigm” introduced by Pope Francis, including his encyclical Laudato si’, and said the proposal of supplementary materials might not take that new paradigm into sufficient account.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore suggested that the audience for Faithful Citizenship isn’t Catholics in the pews, but pastors and state Catholic conference staff members, and that the working group’s proposal to develop shorter, more consumer-friendly resources “would accomplish the goals I think we had set out for ourselves.”

Bishop George Thomas of Las Vegas called Faithful Citizenship lengthy and cumbersome, and said that it reaches state Catholic conferences and clergy but misses the mark in reaching the hearts of “ordinary people.”

He charged that the document has “serious lacunae,” and that there should be created a shorter, more user-friendly document which follows the model of Pope Francis.

In a carefully-composed piece of rhetoric, Bishop Thomas said the present pope has both substance (he “connects worship and compassion, liturgy and justice”), with an eye on the preferential option for the poor, and style (“he prefers dialogue over diatribe, persuasion over polemics, accompaniment over alienation”), and that the US bishops should take his example and “the content of his teaching” to revise or replace Faithful Citizenship.

Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield in Illinois voiced his support for the working group’s proposal, noting the importance particularly of video for reaching people today -- on his flight to the meeting, he said, no-one was reading, they were all watching screens.

He urged that another lengthy document not be issued, and suggested a series of videos rather than a single one be produced, which suggestion was agreed upon by Archbishop Gomez.

Another Los Angeles auxiliary, Bishop David O’Connell, agreed with the proposal and suggested, “we need to take time to think about how Pope Francis’ teachings inform our pastoral practice.”

Bishop John Botean of the Romanian Eparchy of Saint George’s in Canton, was highly favorable to the use of video, but emphasized that “we need to know what will be said.”

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio suggested that the document underlying whatever content is put out is not the question, because “there was consensus” to get Faithful Citizenship adopted, and that the greater question is how to disseminate its message.

Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond indicated his support for the proposal, and added that individual bishops are able to issue pastoral letters themselves.

Intervening again, Bishop Botean suggested that the working group on Faithful Citizenship produce a third item: a new document that expresses current concerns, anxieties of our day, without revising or replacing Faithful Citizenship.

Then Bishop Coyne suggested the conference was not ready to vote: “we’re so divided right now, we’re unclear where we want to go.” He suggested tabling the action item, noting that some, himself included, want an entirely new document on citizenship.

He was supported in that move by Bishop Soto, who said the discussion had given the working group a lot to consider, so that they could return with a “more robust proposal” for the November meeting of the conference.

At this point, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco rose to note the dizzying number of alternative proposals, none of which had been clearly formulated.

A vote on Bishop Coyne’s proposal to table the discussion was held, with two-thirds rejecting his proposal. The discussion continued, focused on developing amendments to the original proposal which might satisfy those bishops with objections.

Cardinal Tobin emphasized that “a number of us are calling for a different source document" to replace Faithful Citizenship, which would inform the content of videos and other new media which the working group would produce.

Bishop Mark O’Connell, a Boston auxiliary, suggested that Faithful Citizenship could be revised, but not replaced, and that the wording of the action item be changed to reflect that.

Bishop McElroy suggested that all reference to Faithful Citizenship be removed from the wording of the proposal.

Bishop McElroy’s suggestion was rejected by the working group.

The working group did, however, concede to changing the language for the pending action item, which was amended to say that the short video and other secondary resources should “complement, rather than replace” Faithful Citizenship (the original had read “complement, rather than revise or replace”). The working group also added a clause saying that newly developed resources should also “apply the teachings of Pope Francis to our day.”

With the revised wording, the proposal came to a vote. The measure passed with well more than a two-thirds majority, though it required only a simple majority. 144 bishops voted in support of the action item, with 41 (just under 22 percent) opposing it.

The discussion was pointed, and took a great deal more time than was anticipated, pushing the public session of the meeting into the afternoon rather than ending before lunch. Faithful Citizenship continues to be the guiding document for civic engagement by Catholics in the US.

Amid repeated reference to “new teachings” of Pope Francis, the unexpected argument demonstrated a deep division among the US bishops.