BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Archbishop-designate William Lori does not foresee having to give up his role as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty, even as he heads for a significantly larger archdiocese than the one he heads now.
But he said his attention will be focused primarily on his new flock in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, with a particular eye to the “New Evangelization.”
Pope Benedict XVI on March 20 appointed the bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., to head America’s premier see. Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, who served as archbishop of Baltimore from 2007 until recently, introduced his successor at a press conference in Baltimore March 20, where local media joined the archdiocese’s auxiliary bishops, priests and seminarians to greet their new shepherd. Cardinal O’Brien, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, will remain apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Baltimore until May 16, when the new archbishop will be installed at the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen.
Archbishop-designate Lori, 60, acknowledged that Baltimore will be a step up in his responsibilities. He has served for 11 years as bishop of Bridgeport, a diocese consisting of one county and a total population of 895,015 — about 60% Catholic. Baltimore’s Catholic population is only slightly larger, but the total population of the city and the nine other counties it covers is over 3.1 million.
Both dioceses have about 250 priests and about 30-35 men in seminary.
“Evangelization is at the heart of the mission of the Church,” he said. “Evangelization is not something the Church does, alongside other things. Really, everything the Church does — whether it’s proclaiming and teaching the word, celebrating the sacraments or engaging in works of charity and education — everything is a proclamation of Christ.”
He added, “Everything should converge on helping the people of our times to open their hearts to Christ and the Gospel and to let that become a part of who they are, how they think, what they do, how they live their lives, and also that they would become part of advancing the mission of the Church.”
The new archbishop has already become well known for his work as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, including testifying before congressional committees considering legislation to secure religious freedom in the face of narrow exemptions for the Department of Health and Human Services “contraceptive mandate” in the nation’s health-care reform package. Having two auxiliary bishops and “what appears to be a wonderful, hardworking staff” in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, he said, will help give him the freedom to continue his work with the committee, and his new proximity to the nation’s capital will make it easier for him to testify on Capitol Hill.
He said the committee soon will issue a “foundational statement” that “looks reflectively at the origins of religious liberty, how it is described in Church teaching, how it is described in foundational documents of the Church, and what are some of the broader threats to religious liberty beyond the HHS mandate.”
The archbishop said the committee will use that statement for “all kinds of communications; for example: pamphlets, bulletin inserts, apps — yes, there will be a religious-liberty app — blogs.”
Asked whether he had any comments as the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to hear oral arguments on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, he said, “We’ll just be watching it carefully. Obviously, it could have some effect on what we’re doing and what we’re interested in. I would just say that the bishops have been in favor of universal access to health care since the conference was founded in 1919. So we’re a little ahead on that position.”
“But, all along, we argued that the health-care reform bill should have adequate conscience protection,” he continued. “It got passed without it. And we didn’t go looking for this [battle], but we have it, and we’re going to pursue all the remedies available to us as citizens — in all three branches of government.”
Archbishop-designate Lori faces similar battles on the local level as well. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Catholic, just signed a bill legalizing same-sex “marriage,” and the state is now gearing up for a referendum challenging the law. While the state’s historic black churches played a more visible role in the legislative battle, the new archbishop, as the president of the Maryland Catholic Bishops’ Conference, could emerge as a central player in an uphill referendum campaign. During the Baltimore press conference, he acknowledged that the referendum was a critical issue.
In Bridgeport, he said, “I will join with my brother bishops in making it clear about the Church’s consistent teaching on the nature of marriage as being between a man and a woman and as predating any government and any church as a fundamental structure of society. But what strategy we end up taking I don’t know yet. I’m just a little too new to the scene.”
On the subject of religious liberty, he reflected on his new appointment and said that defending the first freedom “from a chair once occupied by John Carroll” will be “a source of great grace.”
Threats to religious freedom “should concern all of us as Americans,” he said of the erosion of religious liberty. “This is something I have come to gradually, but now I am in with both feet.”
While leading the Bridgeport Diocese, he was drawn into the political arena, where the culture wars have fueled state fights on abortion rights, same-sex “marriage” and church-state contests. He earned a reputation as a tough Church leader, giving as good as he got.
“Connecticut was a dress rehearsal for the national battle we are now engaged in for the preservation of religious liberty,” said Peter Wolfgang, the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, a Hartford-based nonprofit organization that works with the Connecticut Catholic Conference on marriage and life issues.
In 2009, the state Legislature introduced a bill that would have stripped bishops and priests of financial authority over their parishes.
After the legislation was introduced, Bishop Lori made a series of rapid-fire decisions that produced an immediate show of force in the state Capitol. The diocese arranged for buses and got the word out to other dioceses, while priests exhorted the faithful from the pulpit.
“More than any single individual, credit for the success of the rally and defeat of the bill goes to Bishop Lori, who bypassed the normal structures for doing business at the state Capitol,” Wolfgang recalled. “The Catholic Church was viewed as a moribund institution. He saw that the sleeping giant could be awakened.”
Subsequently, the state Legislature’s ethics committee launched an investigation into the Church’s actions during the legislative battle. Bishop Lori promptly sued the committee, and the state attorney general let the matter drop.
In 2011, that record led New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan to appoint him to lead the newly established Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty for the USCCB. In that role, he has testified on Capitol Hill, drafted letters read from church pulpits, and helped to form a broad alliance of Christian churches opposed to the mandate.
During his recent testimony before several House committee hearings on the HHS contraception mandate, Bishop Lori exhibited the same tough-minded approach on display back in Bridgeport.
When Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, repeatedly challenged the legitimacy of the bishops’ opposition to the mandate, Bishop Lori calmly disputed his various arguments.
At one point, Cummings noted that Church-affiliated institutions received millions in federal funds and implied that the bishops had nothing to complain about.
Bishop Lori replied: “We don’t get a handout. We have a contract for services, and we deliver them. … We bring the generosity of the Catholic people, and we bring volunteers. When you contract with the Church, you get a bang for your buck.”
But he leavened his unapologetic stance with humor, offering a “Parable of the Kosher Deli” during a Feb. 16 hearing that sought to clarify the Church’s stance on the mandate.
His performance on Capitol Hill and his effort to recruit a team of experts to help guide the bishops’ response to present and future challenges have earned him respect. Though Church leaders are on a steep learning curve, several recent opinion polls signaled that the majority of Americans agree with their position.
“Bishop Lori has — for years — been a clear and courageous defender of the freedoms of the Church and the religious liberty of all. His leadership on crucial questions regarding the fundamental right to religious freedom is a blessing, and not only to Catholics,” said Richard Garnett, a professor of law and associate dean of Notre Dame Law School, who is a consultant for the bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty.
“It’s entirely appropriate that the leader of the U.S. bishops’ defense of religious freedom should come to Baltimore, the home of religious freedom in Catholic America,” said George Weigel, the papal biographer and public intellectual, who has written extensively on the mandate fight and charted Bishop Lori’s rising prominence.
For the immediate future, Archbishop-designate Lori will focus much of his energies on his new responsibilities in Baltimore. But his appointment, combined with the recent arrival of Archbishop Charles Chaput in Philadelphia, provides critical reinforcement for Cardinal Dolan’s campaign to evangelize the culture and secure a place for religion in the public square.
“Washingtonians like me, who’ve known Archbishop Lori for years, are delighted by this appointment,” said Russell Shaw, the longtime bishops’ spokesman and author of Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church.
Shaw observed that some of the new archbishop’s most notable qualities “have been much on display in recent months in the religious-liberty fight — but he’s also outspokenly orthodox and notably pastoral in style. I hope the good people of Baltimore are dancing in the streets today. They should.”