By Greg Erlandson, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Every year thousands of Catholics and other abortion opponents march in Washington in the frigid month of January marking the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal nationwide.

This year, however, the march was accompanied by a hot debate on whether Catholics themselves can support legalized abortion.

On the day of the march, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, chair of the U.S. bishops’ prolife committee, published an op-ed column on the website RealClearReligion declaring that “the church has been consistent about the reality of abortion: It is wrong.”

Lori was taking to task the recently retired chaplain of the House of Representatives, a Catholic priest who had told The Washington Post that a “good Catholic” can support access to abortion.

On the eve of the March for Life, a group called Catholics for Choice projected slogans supporting a right to abortion on the exterior of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, while thousands of pro-life Catholics were attending Mass inside.

The action earned a strong rebuke from Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory of Washington, where the basilica is located. “Those whose antics projected words on the outside of the church building demonstrated by those pranks that they really are external to the church,” he said.

The controversies began with a Jan. 5 interview in the Post with Jesuit Father Pat Conroy, who had served as chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives for 10 years. In commenting on the debate over abortion, Father Conroy called choice “an American value” that “happens to be a Catholic value, too.”

“A good Catholic in our system could be saying: Given women in our system have this constitutional right, our task as fellow Christians, or as Catholics, is to make it possible for her to optimize her ability to make the choice,” he said.

Responding in his RealClearReligion column, Archbishop Lori said approaching the issue “solely as a constitutional question is very theoretical.”

Quoting Pope Francis that “realities are greater than ideas,” the archbishop said that “abortion is not merely an idea, but a tragic reality that takes innocent lives and often leads to a lifetime of regret for women.”

The church’s response is “not merely an abstract discourse about rights” but is “a call to act that is rooted in the reality that every human life is a sacred gift from God,” Archbishop Lori said.

The evening before the march, an estimated 5,000 Catholics attended Mass at the basilica, where Archbishop Lori preached the homily. He also was the principal celebrant of the liturgy, which was the opening Mass of the annual National Prayer Vigil for Life.

Noting the 60 million abortions that have taken place since its legalization nationally, he said it was “a matter of fundamental justice … to protect in law the lives of the unborn, society’s most vulnerable and defenseless members.”

“And we must redouble our efforts to accompany women and couples who are facing unexpected or difficult pregnancies, offering them loving and compassionate care.”

During the Mass, the organization Catholics for Choice projected onto the facade of the basilica slogans supporting a right to abortion. The slogans included “Pro-Choice Catholics You Are Not Alone” and “1 in 4 Abortion Patients is Catholic,” a statistic attributed to the Guttmacher Institute.

In his statement condemning what he called “pranks,” Cardinal Gregory said that “the true voice of the church was only to be found within the basilica. … There, people prayed and offered the Eucharist asking God to restore a true reverence for all human life.”

On Twitter, Catholics for Choice posted a picture of the basilica with the slogans and the caption “Catholics for Choice has a message for the so-called #MarchForLife: you don’t speak for us. #LiberateAbortion #AbortionIsEssential.”

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone subsequently tweeted: “The attempted desecration is enormous. Diabolical. Mother Mary, pray for them, now and at the hour of death. Amen.”