ANTHONY R. PICARELLO JR. will be on hand for the U.S. bishops meeting in Orlando June 14.

As general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he directs a 10-person legal staff that advises the bishops, state Catholic conferences and diocesan attorneys nationwide. His job calls for someone who relishes a challenge, knows how to defend religious freedom, and loves the Church.

It’s a good fit for Picarello, 38, who was formerly vice president and general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a secular public interest law firm that handles religious freedom cases for people of all faiths.

Picarello is a graduate of Harvard University, earned a master’s degree at University of Chicago Divinity School and a law degree from the University of Virginia. In 2007, he was named to The American Lawyer’s list of the top 50 litigators under age 45. A Brooklyn native, Picarello lives in Arlington, Va., with his wife, Martha. He recently spoke with Register correspondent Gail Besse.

Your job description sounds huge. How is this position different from you last one with the Becket Fund, now that you’re dealing solely with issues of the Church?

My job description sounds huge to me, too. But really, all the same principles I dealt with at the Becket Fund are at work here, although the structure is more focused than it was when I dealt with different organizations, some just storefront churches. Now I concentrate more on advice than on litigation. And it’s a joy for me to be able to serve the bishops.

As an undergraduate studying anthropology, you were president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Catholic Association. Has taking a visible stand for your faith always been part of your nature?

The seeds of that inclination were there, but it wasn’t developed as such. Studying anthropology, you confront relativism. I was mainly interested in foundational questions about our human capacity to seek and know the truth.

At Harvard, I found myself in an ideologically diverse environment — a mix in which Catholicism wasn’t always welcomed. But we had a great Catholic campus chaplain, Father John MacInnis, who’s now a pastor in Peabody, Mass. He’s one of the good guys who had a lot of answers for me when I had a lot of questions.

Who else played a big role in your spiritual development?

Several key people. I never went to Catholic school, but in high school my English teacher was a former nun — Lucy del Mastro — a good, kind medievalist. She gave me Catholic answers at the right time when I needed them, and then pointed me in the direction of more answers. She showed me there was a vast expanse of knowledge within the Church at a much deeper level than I ever could exhaust, which left me encouraged to keep digging.

Also in college I volunteered tutoring inner-city kids in Boston through the Earthen Vessels Program run by a lay couple — Brian and Marie Claude-Thompson. They contextualized service for us in terms of faith. They had us spend time in prayer in connection with service, to make sure we weren’t just amateur social workers.

By the time I left college, I knew I wanted to serve the Church in some capacity. I spent the year in graduate school thinking about how to do that best. I realized that I had a strong pragmatic streak in that I wanted to put things into action.

So did your interest in church-state relations evolve or was there an epiphany?

It evolved over time, but it grew by leaps. One defining experience was in graduate school, when I studied the writings of John Courtney Murray, an American Jesuit theologian who played an important role in Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s declaration on religious freedom.

Murray’s writing really grabbed me in the gut and got me very excited about religious freedom — how it should be understood, and how it could be misunderstood. Among other things, Murray emphasized that the American idea of “separation of church and state” is best understood as a protection of the church from the state, not the other way around.

First year in law school was another pivotal moment, because that’s when I started reading some of the Supreme Court’s worst religious freedom cases. That was the bad kind of energizing experience.

Finding the Becket Fund was another watershed, since it showed me that there was at least one institution where I could put these religious freedom concepts into practice with common sense and without compromise.

What’s one issue that could pose a big challenge to the Church in the near future?

I’d say it’s the mounting movement to suspend statutes of limitation in sex abuse cases. There have been five diocesan bankruptcies in the last few years.

Take the California situation. In 2002 the state passed a statute that made the time limit indefinite for claims made during a “window” year of 2003. This elicited 1,000 claims against the Church. Some claims went back to the 1930s and were very hard to prove. Some of the people are dead; the alleged abusive priest is dead. It’s ridiculous.

This law resulted in payouts of about $660 million against the Los Angeles Archdiocese alone, and another $660 million for the rest of California. This was comparable to the total sex abuse payout for the entire Church from 1950 to 2002.

If other laws like this are passed across the country, there will be big problems for the future. Catholics need to be vigilant about this.

You’ve also said that the impact of legally redefining marriage will be “severe and opervasive” on society. What can the Church do to better deliver its message about what marriage really is?

One good example is an absolutely great new website that the bishops have put out — It explains the Catholic vision of marriage. When you look at marriage with that vision, then same-sex “marriage” is incoherent. If you’re engaged with the Church, a lot of other issues fall into place.

Do you have any suggestions on how to motivate Catholics to speak up against the growing hostility to religion in our culture?

Catholics need to stay plugged into political affairs. The bishops’ “Faithful Citizenship” document that came out recently is helpful. The whole business of formation of conscience is key; I’m so glad that they focused on that.

The Catholic vision of life is a comprehensive one; that’s why politics can’t be excluded from it, but also why politics can’t be the whole thing. Public life is just one piece of the puzzle. Catholic tradition is not the most activist out there, but it’s also not the most withdrawn.

The bishops and the Pope have offered a good deal of guidance that’s relatively unappreciated. I think the more people are engaged — reading the Pope’s new encyclical, for example — the better they’ll be equipped to deal with the realm of the political, which really is the realm of the laity.

What’s one hopeful sign for the future?

What the Church has done in regards to preventing future sexual abuse — the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the ongoing audits — gives me enormous hope.

Do you have a favorite Scripture passage?

Yes, Joshua 24:15: “But as for me and my house, we shall serve the Lord.”

Gail Besse is based in Boston.