ATLANTA — As the U.S. bishops continue their battle against the federal government’s contraception mandate, they have been under increasing pressure to focus on a defense of the free exercise of Catholic institutions and set aside the issue of conscience protections for individual employers who oppose the new law on religious or moral grounds.
But Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, yesterday embraced the conscience rights for small businessmen and other employers who oppose the inclusion of contraception, abortion drugs and sterilization in private employee health plans.
In an opening statement June 13 that marked the start of a spirited interlude of speeches and discussion on domestic religious-liberty concerns, followed by two presentations on threats to international religious freedom abroad, Archbishop Lori noted the drum beat of critics who want the conference to limit the scope of its agenda.
“The idea that individual persons have a right to conscientious objection, as against coercive government action like the HHS mandate — though firmly established in both the teaching of the Church and the policy of the conference for generations — has not merely been called into question, but mocked as some kind of novel or marginal theory,” he said.
Archbishop Lori’s firm stance was backed up by a strong statement from the papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who attended the meeting.
“It goes without saying that the Catholic Church in the United States is living in a particularly challenging period of its history,” Archbishop Viganò told the Atlanta meeting, making it clear that Pope Benedict XVI endorsed their initiative.
“Of course, I am thinking of the whole question of freedom of religion and of conscience,” the nuncio added, in a departure from more diplomatic language. "The Church must speak with one voice. The fundamental tactic of the enemy is to see the Church divided." The nuncio suggested that the Pope's addresses during the U.S. bishops' recent ad limina visits provided a road map for the future.
A host of constitutional scholars and commentators have waited to see how the bishops would likely respond to the mounting pressure to backtrack on individual conscience rights. Alarm bells went off after some bishops seemed to reserve their ammunition for challenging the mandate’s narrow religious exemption for Church-affiliated institutions and ignored the concerns of small businessmen.
On Monday, two days before the bishops met in Atlanta, Public Discourse, a website that addresses such issues and is closely affiliated with Robert George, the professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and a leading Catholic public intellectual, posted a defense of conscience rights.
“The key to understanding conscience rights correctly is to recognize that there is a world of difference between a law that makes me do something I don’t want to do and a law that makes me do something I have an obligation not to do. The former is an annoyance, the latter an assault on my moral integrity,” wrote Melissa Moschella, who recently earned her Ph.D. in politics at Princeton.
“[As a] pluralistic liberal democracy, we should indeed bend over backwards to craft our laws so that individuals will never be unnecessarily coerced into violating their consciences.”
‘The Catholic Both/And’
Archbishop Lori, for his part, laid out the principles that have shaped the conference’s statements and efforts to pursue legal and legislative remedies to the contraception mandate approved on Jan. 20. He stressed that they did not only address the federal government’s unacceptably narrow religious exemption, which excludes Catholic hospitals, universities and social-service agencies, but also endorsed individual conscience rights.
The USCCB administrative committee unanimously approved “United for Religious Freedom” at its March meeting. It “discusses the concerns of both institutions and individuals; and among institutions, both the religious and the non-religious,” he said.
“It shows concern for the consciences not only of employers, but also of the various other stakeholders in the health-insurance process, such as insurers and employees.” An expansive defense of religious liberty, he said, “exemplifies the Catholic both/and,” which is more inclusive and, therefore, unifying.
“The document reflects the full breadth of the applicable Church teaching on religious liberty, not just parts. In this way, the document foresees and forecloses some of the potential divisions that our opponents would create among us.”
A subsequent — and more extensive — statement of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” he noted, also moved beyond a defense of Catholic institutions to embrace “[o]ther Christians; Jews, Muslims and all people of faith; even those who reject religion altogether — the right to religious freedom belongs to all of them,” he stated.
“That is because religious freedom is not only their legal right and proud heritage as Americans, but also a universal human right, one that flows directly from their inherent dignity as human persons."
In further comments on the upcoming “Fortnight for Freedom,” which the Ad Hoc Committee proposed in “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” he noted its spiritual focus.
“It involves public action, yes — but it is primarily a matter of prayer and education,” he added, outlining plans for educational and public initiatives that highlight Church teaching on religious freedom, inform the public about ongoing threats to the first freedom, and affirm the need for prayer to change hearts and minds to embrace freedom.
The fortnight will begin on June 21, with a Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore, and end July 4 with another liturgy at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington, D.C.
Critics have argued that the bishops’ heavy focus on religious freedom marked a dangerous shift into partisan politics during an election year.
Last month, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne wrote that the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom campaign [a 14-day period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom] is looking more and more like a direct intervention in this fall’s elections.”
But Archbishop Lori rejected that suggestion.
The fortnight “is strictly about the issue of religious freedom, at all levels of government here in the U.S., as well as abroad — it is not about parties, candidates or elections, as some others have suggested.
He made it clear, however, that the barrage of criticism and attacks from within the Church and without had not diminished his passion for the cause of religious freedom.
The criticism, he said, “should prompt us to do exactly the opposite, for they show us how very great is the need for our teaching, both in our culture and even in our own Church.”
During their discussion about the mandate, several bishops acknowledged that internal Church conflicts, including the very public dispute between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had weakened their effort to present a united front. Yet the bishops also said they continued to receive support from across the nation.
Mother Joan Paul, who heads the School Sisters of Christ the King, based in Lincoln, Neb., told the Register that she and her fellow sisters stood with the bishops and that one sister had stepped forward to be a plaintiff in a legal challenge to the mandate filed by the attorney general of Nebraska.
"As Catholic educators, we are vitally concerned for the future of our youth and their basic rights. Right now, this issue is critical, and we will do all we can to fight against this mandate," said Mother Joan.
"But our ongoing mission is to empower our youth to become an 'engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity,' as Pope Benedict put it. In the words of Archbishop William Lori at today's USCCB meeting, the 'tools' we can give them are: the love of Christ and the truth about the human person."
Throughout the day, other speakers addressed a spectrum of threats posed to the free exercise of Catholic institutions and individual believers in the U.S. and abroad.
Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad, who serves as president of Caritas Iraq, described the catastrophic consequences of wartime violence on the vulnerable Christian minority that has witnessed the flight of co-religionists out of their homeland.
"We have freedom of worship, but we do not have freedom of conscience or of religion," Bishop Warduni told the assembly. "If someone becomes a Christian, they could be killed very easily."
Tom Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, reminded the bishops that religious freedom is being pushed to the sidelines in parts of the United Kingdom and Western Europe, the cradle of religious liberty, where secular currents have sought to suppress the public expression of Christian faith.
Farr, in an interview, defended the bishops’ focus on individual conscience rights.
“Archbishop Lori's argument was not new. He was reflecting a long-standing position of the Catholic Church, i.e., that every religious actor — whether individual or institution — must have full equality under the law. This means the right of Catholics and non-Catholics, Christians and non-Christians, to participate in civil society and politics on the basis of their religious beliefs,” said Farr.
Speakers made it clear that the emergence of threats to religious freedom in Europe and the U.S. reflected the rising power of secular forces. “Perhaps the reason we see a loss of religious freedom today is that we are turning a corner in our collective view of religion. We are not exactly like France, where only 4.5% of Catholics go to Mass weekly (down from 27% in 1965). But we are measurably less religious than we were a few decades ago,” suggested John Garvey, the president of The Catholic University of America and a constitutional scholar who has advised the USCCB's Committee for Religious Liberty.
In an eBook to be released June 19, Our First Freedom: On the Gospel of Life and the Protection of Human Dignity and Religious Liberty, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the USCCB's president, recalls Blessed John Paul II’s encyclical The Gospel of Life and explains how a culture of death that brooks no constraints on its view of freedom will ultimately attack religious beliefs that counter its utilitarian ethos.
Archbishop Lori offered a similar observation. Attacks arising from secular forces and dissident Catholics, he suggested, “show us how far we have fallen and how far we have to climb before we can rest assured that religious freedom stands on firm footing.”
Looking out to the assembly of bishops, he vowed, “We will not fail.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register's senior editor.