Bishop William Lori is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, established this fall to direct and fortify the Church’s response to the “erosion of freedom of religion in America,” arising from immediate threats — at both the federal and state level — to the free exercise of religion by Catholic institutions.

Bishop Lori, a former auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., who has led the Bridgeport, Conn., Diocese since 2001, has already testified on Capitol Hill at congressional hearings on this issue, but he’s impatient to mobilize the faithful to engage both legislative and cultural forces that seek to expel the Church from the public square.

In a wide-ranging interview with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, he outlines a new game plan for bringing, bishops and legal scholars, state Catholic conferences and ordinary Catholics on board for the fight.

Media coverage of the USCCB’s recent meeting in Baltimore characterized the conference as “turning inward” when it focused on religious freedom rather than social justice issues.

Religious liberty is the preeminent social justice issue. One can characterize religious freedom as an “inward” issue only if one accepts the very view our conference is struggling against — that religion should be confined to the sacristy.

When we speak about religious freedom as the first of the freedoms it’s not to aggrandize the Church but to uphold the first line of defense for the dignity of the human person.

At the same time, we are also defending the freedom of the Church to bring her social teaching robustly into national and international debates and discussions that affect the common good.

And we are defending religious liberty so as to secure the right of all churches, including the Catholic Church, to continue providing educational and social services in accord with their teaching and practice, to the needy and the vulnerable.

Far from being an “inward” issue, religious freedom is basic to all the Church strives to do outwardly in building “a civilization of truth and love.”

The U.S. bishops’ effort to expand the religious freedom exemption in the Department of Health and Human Services’ interim rule mandating contraception services for private employer health benefits has galvanized many Catholics to get involved on emerging threats to religious liberty. What’s going on, and can we expect more of the same in the future?

It is my understanding that HHS has received a flood of comments on its interim (final) rule mandating not only contraception services, but also abortifacients and sterilization. But we don’t yet know whether the rule will be revised to accommodate all faith-based and private insurers.

This episode underlines an important point: It’s not enough for the bishops and leaders of church institutions to clearly state our teaching, the government needs to hear from the lay faithful. The more they see a unity and resolve on the part of the whole Church, the less likely they are to try to impose such unjust and illegal rules.

You have also noted that an historic ongoing erosion of religious liberty is manifesting itself in the immediate threats.

It is not enough for us to look at the symptoms, namely, the immediate and palpable threats to religious liberty at the state and federal levels. We must also look at the underlying disease: an aggressive secularism which has decided that humanity is happier without God and organized religion. This has been going on for a long time.

America remains a very religious country and is marked by a surprising consensus with regard to belief in God and the importance of religion.

Nonetheless, organized religion over time has lost some of its influence on the culture and this is being reflected in legislation, court decisions and administrative rules.
Over time the view has emerged that religious liberty is a grant of the state not a gift of the Creator. Some would reduce it to a merely private right to worship as one pleases and would also unduly limit the rights of religious persons and institutions to advance their views in the public square and to act on their convictions as service providers.

Religious liberty, which is the first of our liberties and source of all the others, has been compromised by so called “rights,” which have no textual basis in the Constitution, such as those pertaining to abortion or same-sex “marriage.”

Thus the Church’s teaching on marriage as between a man and woman is viewed by some as a form of bigotry, akin to racism, against persons of a homosexual inclination. The Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life is portrayed as discriminatory against women.

Are we still in the early days of developing a broad-based defense of religious liberty similar to the pro-life movement that emerged in response to Roe v. Wade?

It is apt to compare the response of the U.S. bishops to their long-standing and vigorous defense of human life and also to their more recent efforts to defend marriage.
In one form or another, the bishops will always have to be involved in the defense of religious liberty at home and abroad.

We need to educate and mobilize the faithful and the broader culture about the importance of religious freedom. Scholars and experts need to be enlisted and involved. We need to advocate for sound public policy and, where appropriate, engage in litigation and research.

As the chairman of the USCCB’s new Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, how would you describe its mission?

The committee has been formed to help keep bishops alerted to present and ongoing threats to religious liberty at home and abroad and also to help them teach, communicate and mobilize their people in defense of religious liberty.

Its purview includes the long-term erosion of religious liberty (domestic and international) and immediate threats to this precious gift, such as the attack of the Department of Justice on the ministerial exception (a First Amendment right of churches to choose and manage their ministers).

The committee’s mission is comparable to the Defense of Marriage Subcommittee and, in some respects, to the Pro-Life Activities Committee. We have long-term and short-term goals and must seek to affect the culture, which currently places untoward restrictions on religious liberty.

How do you aim to engage Catholics at the grassroots level?

First, it is our hope to develop catechetical materials for bishops and pastors, and a multimedia initiative on religious liberty designed to inform and inspire. We want to reach young people through Catholic schools and CCD programs. And we will certainly seek the assistance of state Catholic Conferences and their legislative networks that are already in place.

Our effort is not to create new bureaucracies but to use what is already in place: a network of parishes, schools, social service agencies, communications networks and the like.

Over time we will develop what I hope will be effective strategies mobilizing the laity to voice their concerns and to be out in front in these efforts to defend religious liberty.

The committee includes Church leaders who have been active on religious freedom issues and a slew of high-profile constitutional scholars. How will you define the roles and responsibilities of both groups?

The committee is comprised of well-qualified bishop-members and consultants, including constitutional scholars and specialists in First Amendment issues. We have already divided up into working groups, bishops and consultants together, so as to collaborate on accomplishing important projects as soon as we can.

Some constitutional scholars now challenge the notion that religious liberty is the “first freedom” protected under the Bill of Rights, and they question whether we should promote this freedom abroad.

Pope Benedict XVI recently called religious freedom the first freedom, not just because it was the first to be discovered but also because it touches what he called “the constitutive dimension” of man, namely, his relationship with the Creator.

What does this mean? Religious freedom is the first of the freedoms because it identifies the transcendent dignity of man.

No other human being or government force grants us dignity and freedom; rather, we are endowed with liberty by God because we are made in His image and destined to be with him.

Once man’s transcendent nature is denied all freedoms are endangered. In the same vein, many constitutional scholars say that it’s not accidental that religious liberty is listed first in the Bill of Rights.

The Founding Fathers note the important role that religion is to play in a democratic society, in contributing to a common morality essential to the American experiment in ordered liberty.

If America is true to herself in embracing the transcendent dignity of the human person as enshrined in her founding documents, then she will continue to speak out against violations of religious liberty everywhere in the world.

But it’s not a one-way street, not a case of noblesse oblige; the struggle for religious freedom around the world should prompt us as U.S. citizens to ask how much we value our own freedoms.

Those who suffer for their faith in Egypt, China and elsewhere inspire us to perform actions of solidarity through prayer and practical assistance.

What’s the connection between the USCCB’s promotion of religious freedom abroad and the Holy See’s concerns?

The USCCB is closely aligned with the Holy See’s promotion of religious liberty throughout the world, especially as expressed by Blessed Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict.

Our work is guided by Church teaching on the dignity of the human person and on religious liberty, as expressed in Dignitatis Humanae in particular.
We are deeply conscious of the diplomatic efforts of the Church in many places to secure the freedoms of religious minorities, as well as the right and need of the Church to continue to freely provide assistance to the vulnerable and suffering.

This is one reason we’re deeply concerned about the refusal of the federal government to renew its cooperative agreements with Catholic Relief Services and Migrant and Refugee Services, in spite of their excellent performance. It is a violation of religious liberty when faith-based providers, which are otherwise excellent, are penalized in competing for contracts because of their convictions.

How will the committee assist with threats to religious liberty at the state level?

Mary Ellen Russell, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, is a member of the committee, and she will serve as a liaison with state conference directors. I will also address the conference directors via video-conference in the coming days.

Threats to religious liberty at the state level include the criminalization of the churches’ “Good Samaritan” services to the undocumented in Alabama, and the legal problems faced by a county clerk in New York State because she refuses to take part in so-called same-sex marriages. Meanwhile, hostile state legislatures are driving Catholic Charities out of adoption and foster-care.

Our committee will work with state conferences in putting such violations in the national spotlight, when appropriate, and will also seek their help in communicating to parishioners via their legislative networks.

How has the secularization of American culture fueled these legal and legislative challenges to religious freedom?

The erosion of religious liberty is first a cultural issue, then a legal issue. It has been going on for a long time. Some philosophers, social scientists and others in a position to influence culture have long regarded religion not only as absurd but also as the source of much societal and personal unhappiness.

Their views have not remained confined to the academy but have become popularized through the media and entertainment industries and, over time, have been reflected in laws, judicial decisions and administrative rules. As the great constitutional lawyer Learned Hand once said, if liberty dies in the hearts of men and women, “no constitution, no law, no court, can save it.”

The Church, “an expert in humanity,” must strive to transform the culture. In this sense, the defense of religious liberty is very much a part of the New Evangelization, which is very much a theme of this pontificate. In proclaiming the Gospel afresh and in bearing witness to the Gospel with renewed conviction, we must seek, in God’s grace, to heal the rift between the Gospel and an aggressively secular culture.

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.