Archbishop Chaput: Religious Liberty Depends on Lay Faithful, Not Bishops

‘If laypeople don’t love their Catholic faith enough to struggle for it in the public square, nothing the bishops do will finally matter.’

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia.
Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia. (photo: Catholic News Agency)

PHILADELPHIA — The Liberty Bell stands in Philadelphia as an icon of American freedom and independence since 1776. Today, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput warns that the bell is tolling for religious liberty in the United States, and lay Catholics must determine whether it rings in the rebirth or the end of that cherished freedom.

Archbishop Chaput and the rest of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have called upon Catholic Americans to observe the second annual “Fortnight for Freedom” from June 21 to July 4. The bishops have asked Catholics to engage in two weeks of prayer, education and action to address the many challenges to religious liberty in the United States, especially as the Aug. 1 deadline for religious organizations to comply with the HHS mandate approaches.

But while the U.S. bishops have highlighted this issue, Archbishop Chaput makes the case that the fate of religious liberty falls squarely upon the shoulders of the lay faithful. The archbishop has warned Catholics that they need to “wake up” and realize that the recent IRS scandals involving the deliberate targeting of political (and even religious) groups not favorable to the White House is only a foretaste of the consequences of losing the national discussion on religious liberty.

In this interview with the Register, Archbishop Chaput explains why the lay faithful must take up their role as the leaders in the fight for religious liberty — and why the U.S. bishops can’t do this for them.

What responsibility do laypeople have to take action on behalf of the Church’s religious liberty? Why can’t this responsibility rest solely on the bishops’ shoulders?

The secular world is the place where laypeople exercise their leadership most naturally. It’s the environment of their everyday lives and their primary mission field. Bishops can counsel and teach, but their role in practical political affairs like the fight for religious liberty can only be indirect and secondary.

If laypeople don’t love their Catholic faith enough to struggle for it in the public square, nothing the bishops do will finally matter.


How should we Catholics understand the different responsibilities of the lay faithful and their pastors and bishops in this fight for religious freedom?

American Catholic culture has a strong dose of “let Father do it.” A hundred years ago, when the Church was still an immigrant faith under pressure and dealing with constant bigotry, a heavy dependence on priests for almost everything in Catholic life was natural. But in the long run it’s not healthy, and it encourages clericalism on the part of the clergy and laziness on the part of laypeople.

What’s our relationship with our bishops, then, and our proper role?

Priests do have a special task of leadership within the believing community through the sacrament of holy orders. But we all share a fundamental Christian equality in baptism, and priests can’t — and shouldn’t — take the lead where laypeople can do a better job.

When it comes to politics, economics and social policy, the main duty of a bishop is to preach basic principles. Sometimes, on some pivotal issues, bishops need to be more engaged in the details of legislation. But, overall, Catholic witness in the secular world should be the work of prudent, faithful laypeople.

Note that the two key words there are “prudent” and “faithful.” Both qualities are vital to the lay vocation.


Why does the fight for religious liberty depend on lay leadership more than ever?

Religious liberty as an ideal sounds lovely. But in the abstract, it has very little power. It has political force only to the degree that ordinary people believe and practice their faith — and refuse to tolerate anyone or anything interfering with their faith. The current White House has a clear track record of ignoring the traditional American understanding of religious freedom and interfering with the activity of religiously inspired organizations.

If lay Catholics accept that sort of government behavior without inflicting a political cost on the officials responsible for it, then they have no one to blame but themselves when they find that their liberties have gone thin.

What advantages do the laity have that the bishops do not?

In the wake of the abuse scandal, bishops are too easily caricatured and marginalized by the mass media. The religious-freedom fight needs to be owned and led by laypeople.


Should the laity wait for the bishops to green-light their ideas, or should they just go ahead and get involved? How do we work together?

Laypeople have the freedom and the obligation to actively witness their faith, alone and together with other believers. Obviously, zeal should be accompanied by common sense. That means keeping your local bishop informed and seeking his blessing for any major apostolate.

But the missionary vocation belongs to all of us — clergy, religious and lay — and we should commit ourselves to pursuing it as our circumstances in life permit.

Register correspondent Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.