"I absolutely think 'preeminent' needs to stay," Strickland said.
The bishop seemed to think that McElroy had changed the matter up for debate. Some journalists suggested he had gotten confused. Although he made his point plainly, "preeminent" was not up for debate, there was no formal question of taking it out.
Strickland has been lauded by some Catholics for the courage he is thought to have shown by his remark. But whatever his reasoning, the bishop contributed to McElroy's diversion: he weighed in on a debate the body wasn't actually having. And it was not the first time at the meeting that Strickland seemed to be out of step with the conversation.
On Monday morning, as they got underway, the bishops were asked to approve their meeting's agenda, a standard part of the rules of order. Bishop Earl Boyea made a motion that an update on the Vatican's McCarrick investigation be added to the agenda. Strickland seconded that motion. The bishops voted and Boyea's motion, seconded by Strickland, passed by a voice vote.
Immediately after that vote, Strickland asked for the floor and was recognized.
"I echo the request for the investigation of the report on McCarrick," Strickland said, before proposing that "future agendas" include a section "to address the questions of guarding the deposit of faith," though the bishop did not specify what exactly he meant.
Strickland's "echo" seemed out of place: He stood, it seemed, to "echo" a motion that he himself had already seconded, and that had already passed the entire assembly of bishops. In the press gallery, journalists asked one another whether the bishop understood that the idea had just passed, after he personally seconded it.
On Tuesday, it was Archbishop Charles Chaput who got the debate on the Cupich amendment back on track. He spoke after Strickland.
"I am certainly not against quoting the Holy Father's statement," Chaput said.
"I think it's a beautiful statement, I believe it," the archbishop added, weighing in on the motion on the floor.
Chaput then turned his attention to McElroy's remarks. He did not address the question of whether "preeminent" ought to remain in the document. But he did address, forcefully, the argument McElroy used to support the Cupich amendment.
"I am against anyone stating that our saying [abortion] is 'preeminent' is contrary to the teaching of the pope. Because that isn't true. It sets an artificial battle between the bishops' conference of the United States and the Holy Father which isn't true. So I don't like the argument Bishop McElroy used. It isn't true."
"We do support the Holy Father completely, what he said is true, but I think it has been very clearly the articulated opinion of the bishops' conference for many years that pro-life is still the preeminent issue. It doesn't mean the others aren't equal in dignity, it's just time, in the certain circumstances of our Church, in the United States," Chaput said.
The bishops applauded Chaput.
An analysis of Chaput's remarks suggests two things: that he might have been favor of Cupich's amendment, of which he said he was "not against;" and that he opposed the argument used by McElroy to support that amendment.
After Chaput, Gomez said the committee preferred to leave the long quote out, mentioned that a reference to the full text was made in a footnote, said the committee was "called to have a brief document," and called for a vote.
By a vote of 143-69, the bishops chose the committee's summarized text over Cupich's preference for a long excerpt from Pope Francis.
Some bishops might have thought, as Strickland did, that the vote was on "preeminence." Some might have thought it was a vote on McElroy and Chaput's divide over Catholic social teaching. But the question was explained to them immediately before they voted; it seems likely most bishops understood what they were being asked.
Based upon his own remarks, it is reasonable to conclude that Chaput himself may well have voted in favor of including the whole text, which he called "beautiful," even while he strongly disagreed with McElroy on the reasons to vote for it.
Shortly after the vote, Strickland weighed in again, this time by tweet. "Thank God the USCCB voted to uphold the preeminence of the Sanctity of the life of the unborn. It is sad that 69 voted no," he tweeted.
Strickland's tweet went viral. It was an incorrect interpretation of the vote, based upon the bishop's apparent belief that the language of preeminence was on the ballot. Not to belabor a point, but it never was.
A half hour after Strickland tweeted, a conservative YouTube commentator named Taylor Marshall retweeted the bishop's text, adding his own brief comment: "69 USA bishops voted 'no,' which means 69 USA bishops are not Catholic."
That tweet, like Strickland's, took off into the ether of social media, and soon more voices weighed in, accusing bishops of heresy and spinelessness.
The vote was over whether bishops should quote a long paragraph, or summarize it. For that, bishops were accused of heresy.
On Nov. 14, Strickland weighed back in, tweeting about "the hard data that approx 1/3 of the bishops voted against the language of 'preeminence.'"
"I pray for unity, Guarding the Deposit of Faith with Pope Francis," he added.
By his own tweeted admission, the bishop who sparked an online backlash that ended with bishops being called heretics did not know what they had actually voted about.
The consequence of that backlash is that some Catholics may needlessly lose trust in their bishops, and lose confidence in the claims of the Catholic Church.
The U.S. bishops face a serious divide over their understanding of Pope Francis, occasioned by a small number who seem to have positioned themselves as the pope's authoritative interpreters. It seems clear that divide may well boil to a head.
But the bishops are also divided by what seems to be a hermeneutic of suspicion, which allows some among their number to accuse others of voting against the dignity of human life, even when that misrepresents what's actually happened.
The bishops are in danger of the kind of partisanship that could lead them to reflexively oppose those with a different viewpoint, rather than doing the hard work of listening carefully, condemning what is false while seeking unity whenever possible. That kind of partisanship would inevitably heighten disunity among practicing Catholics.
Bishops like Chaput and the late Cardinal Francis George, who sought unity with brother bishops even amid real disagreement, are often hailed as models for a conference that could address serious issues with an authentic spirit of fraternity. But whether those models will be heeded by future generations of leaders remains to be seen.
Praying for unity is important. So is the virtue which leads to it. In the social media era, bishops can feed the polarization and nastiness of hot-take culture, even inadvertently. Charity and prudence, especially amid disagreement, must be "preeminent priorities" of the apostles, if Christ's Church is to live in unity.
J.D.Flynn served as Catholic News Agency's editor-in-chief from August 2017 to December 2020.