Archbishop Lori Discusses Presidential Debates, Polls and the Beatitudes

The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty talks about the spiritual and political challenges of the current election cycle.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, has helped to direct the conference’s response to the First Amendment threat posed by the federal Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate.

In this capacity, he has testified before Congress and worked with constitutional scholars and other religious leaders to mount a broad interfaith challenge to the mandate in the federal courts and from the pulpit. Since his installation as archbishop of Baltimore in May, he worked to secure the Maryland referendum to strike down same-sex “marriage” legislation that passed in March. Just days before the first presidential debate on Oct. 3, he spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond to update readers on the Health and Human Services mandate fight, analyze recent polls on Catholics attitudes about the mandate and same-sex “marriage,” and present the Church’s solution to the polarized politics that have defined this campaign season.


You arrived in Baltimore while you were also directing the U.S. bishops’ national effort to overturn the HHS mandate. Since then, while you’ve spent time getting to know your priests and local Catholics, you have also jumped into the Maryland referendum battle on same-sex “marriage.” What has sustained you? What gives you joy?

What always gives me joy in life is being a priest — offering the sacrifice of the Mass, visiting the sick, hearing confessions — all those things the Lord has called me to do in his goodness and mercy. I have been sustained by spending time with the Lord in prayer and by the wonderful support of priests, religious and lay faithful. I can say the Lord has stretched me, but he has not left me unattended. I am content and joyful.


Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a self-identified Catholic and a leading advocate for legalizing same-sex “marriage” in the state, says the law protects religious freedom. But many constitutional scholars who support “marriage equality” acknowledge that it poses a direct challenge to the free exercise of religion.

The ballot language is frankly deceiving. It is dressed up in religious-liberty language, but there are almost no protections for religious liberty if the law goes into effect.

Some people will think that simply not requiring priests and ministers of churches opposed to same-sex “marriage” to solemnize such marriages will protect religious liberty.

The real threat lies in the area of licensing of Catholic Charities’ adoption agencies and accreditation of schools and universities that maintain their support of traditional marriage.

Most people don’t realize how pervasive marriage is in federal and state law. We won’t recognize the consequences of redefining it until some years and many lawsuits down the road.

While the HHS mandate has been front and center, I’m even more concerned about the possibility that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) will be overturned. It is not unthinkable that defending traditional marriage will be regarded as bigotry and hate speech and that all kinds of strictures will be placed on our schools.


After opponents of same-sex “marriage” in Maryland got enough signatures to challenge the state law and put it on the ballot, the names of the petition signatories were posted on several websites. Are public-disclosure laws being used to enforce political correctness?

Recently, I spoke with a gentleman and asked him to support this effort. I told him, “Your donation is not tax-deductible.” I said, “It will be made public, and I can’t guarantee there won’t be harassment.”

He told me, “My wife and I want to stand up for marriage.” Sometimes bearing witness is costly.

Am I concerned? Yes. I don’t want anybody to be subject to harassment for stating their convictions in public as both citizens and believers.


What’s the status of the U.S. bishops’ campaign to overturn the federal contraception mandate?

One important update is that additional lawsuits have been filed: most recently, by the Diocese of Nashville, the Nashville Dominicans and Hobby Lobby, a large, family-owned retail chain.

One can never guarantee how a lawsuit will turn out, and, in some cases, the administration has filed against [these legal challenges] on procedural ground. We have responded in a thorough and competent fashion.

On the public-advocacy front: An effort has been made to see that a question about the HHS mandate is asked during the presidential debate. We will see if that effort is successful: It would be good to cut through the public-relations fog created since the start of the year.

The bishops have launched a Marian prayer campaign to help raise awareness, and we will be at the [Basilica of the] National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception [in Washington] on Oct. 14 at noon.

We’ll have a Marian pilgrimage for life and liberty that will include a Rosary and Eucharistic procession. It will be broadcast on EWTN, and I’ll be preaching.


Any overtures from the Obama administration?

No. It would be surprising if they were to be made now, in the heat of a presidential campaign and following the emphasis on this [issue] during the Democratic National Convention. But, again, we remain open to any constructive discussion that might be possible.


Is there a way to make this religious-freedom effort less partisan, disentangling it from a party-loyalty issue, and help Catholics and other Americans see it as a stand-alone issue?

It isn’t red; it isn’t blue. This transcends party politics and goes to what is fundamental about being an American. It’s also fundamental to human dignity: The right to religious liberty is a gift from God. Unfortunately, what is lost in so much of public discourse and all the sound bites is the ability to think at the level of principles, at the level of what is foundational. One reason our country is so divided is our seeming inability to do this.

The New Evangelization and our excellent social teaching can help lead the way for thinking in a principled way about this and then inject such thinking into the political process.

It used to be that people in public life could cite Catholic social teaching chapter and verse, and there was even concern about how public policies might match up with it.

Led by the Holy Father, the Church is involved in a long-term effort to re-propose what it believes and teaches. This principled way of thinking is being lost in all the rhetoric assaulting us today.


A recent Pew Research Center poll found that about 50% of Catholics who regularly attend Mass support the president’s policies, including the HHS mandate. Some say such polls show that the U.S. bishops and their allies have failed to get their message out. What is your take on these polls?

Polls do matter. But to get an accurate picture of the situation, one needs to study many different polls and understand their methodology.

Polling, focus groups and other such tools frame the enormity of the challenge: Namely, many people, including many Catholics, probably don’t really understand what the HHS mandate and same-sex “marriage” portend for religious liberty.

These tools can help us better present our messages and foster a principled discussion of faith and reason. And they help us understand the importance of laypeople who can present the message in an attractive way.


The Church’s fight against the mandate comes at a time of high anxiety for American Catholics and the West in general. The economic crisis hasn’t lifted, and activists want to redefine marriage. Many fear the country is moving in a dangerous, unpredictable direction. Our complacency has been shaken.

We do find ourselves in a new situation. An aggressive and Godless secularism has overtaken our culture. It has always been a secular culture, but it is newly aggressive, and that presents multiple challenges.

But one reason why legal challenges have been mounted against religious freedom and the family is that these things have already become broadly acceptable in the culture.

We must and do struggle against these things legally and politically. But there is a more fundamental task before us: It is the New Evangelization, and it is about re-proposing the truths of reason and Revelation to a secular and hardened culture using a new apologetics.

The way that Pope Benedict exercises the papal magisterium provides a model for how we might do this. He has announced the Year of Faith to help us address the more fundamental task at hand.

Those of us who are in the Church need to go deeper than knowing what the Church teaches. We must study why the Church believes and teaches what she does. With prayer, reflection and mutual support, we can reach the conviction that what she teaches is not only true, but it is good, beautiful, coherent and utterly necessary — not only for our lives, but for the lives of those around us and for our culture.

Despite secularism, people still care about the essential questions: Why am I here, and how can I find true fulfillment? People wonder, In the midst of having it my way, why do I still feel so empty?

There are many openings for the Gospel, but we cannot defend traditional marriage, for example, without engaging the New Evangelization. Yet, in an election year, we have a tendency to drop everything else to focus on the campaign, to exaggerate both the importance of victory and the dangers of defeat.


Recent violence in the Middle East, linked to a video attacking the prophet Muhammad, prompted an apology from the administration, but some commentators have argued that only the threat of violence leads secularists to respect religious beliefs. How can Catholics effectively address this issue?

We need the Beatitudes. You cannot defend Gospel values using any means that are opposed to the Gospel. You cannot defend religion using tools that are anti-religious.

Pope Benedict wrote in the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth that the Beatitudes are like the “veiled interior biography of Christ himself.” As we do a lectio divina of the Beatitudes, we understand that the more we absorb them and become like Christ, the better equipped we are to present the true face of religion to the world. In doing so, we will sometimes meet with persecution, but we will also win over adherents to Christ and to membership in the Church.

The Beatitudes guide our path to civility in the public square. Civility is a civic virtue. But, on a deeper level, the Lord talks about the “pure of heart” and the “peacemakers.” It doesn’t mean we back off on what we believe in, but that our public witness arises from a heart and mind shaped by Christ himself.