Protecting Religious Freedom

Bishops meeting in Baltimore for their fall gathering expressed support for the conference’s new emphasis on religious liberty in America, but had differing views on strategies.

BALTIMORE — Washington has taken note of the Church’s newly assertive stance on religious liberty.

And judging from the tone at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general assembly Nov. 14-16, no letup is planned during the upcoming 2012 election year.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, said the bishops will use every opportunity to defend religious liberty on Capitol Hill and before the faithful.

During his opening address at the semi-annual meeting in Baltimore, he asserted that the Church’s fight for religious freedom manifested its unique and irreplaceable witness in an increasing secular culture.

“Our world would often have us believe that culture is light years ahead of a languishing, moribund Church,” he said. “But, of course, we realize the opposite case: The Church invites the world to a fresh, original place, not a musty or outdated one.

“It is always a risk for the world to hear the Church, for she dares the world to ‘cast out to the deep,’ to foster and protect the inviolable dignity of the human person and human life; to acknowledge the truth about life ingrained in reason and nature; to protect marriage and family; to embrace those suffering and struggling; to prefer service to selfishness; and never to stifle the liberty to quench deep down for the divine that the poets, philosophers and peasants of the earth know to be what really makes us genuinely human.”

During a Nov. 14 press conference, the archbishop reported on his brief meeting with President Barack Obama the previous week.

The archbishop described the president as “sensitive” to the bishops’ concerns about the administration’s recent policies that constrain the free exercise of religion by Catholic institutions and individuals.

Asked to comment on whether all the bishops were on board with this priority agenda issue, Archbishop Dolan said in an interview that he was impressed with the “unanimity” of the bishops’ support for the newly established Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty.

Election-year politics have already intruded in the bishops’ effort to raise the alarm about threats to religious freedom posed by a spectrum of actions adopted by the Obama administration, including the interim rule to mandate contraceptive services for all private employer health-care plans.

In recent media reports, the bishops’ increasingly visible defense of religious liberty has been characterized as a retreat from long-standing social-justice priorities. Archbishop Dolan rejected this characterization. He argued that the defense of religious freedom affirmed the Church’s right to serve the poor and the needy within a distinctly Catholic framework designed to secure and promote the dignity of the human person in the image of God.

The New York archbishop noted that the bishops’ highly regarded “trafficking victims’ assistance program had been denied funding because of its [the USCCB’s] refusal to provide family-planning services.”

His point: The Church’s social-justice commitments are also not immune from the effort to remove Catholic witness from the public square.

Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the Committee on Religious Liberty, echoed this theme in his address before the assembly. He characterized the defense of religious liberty as central to the protection of Catholic social agencies that “serve the common good with extraordinary effectiveness and generosity.”

“In the dioceses that we serve,” Bishop Lori said, “the Church is the largest non-governmental source of education, social, charitable and health-care services.”

In response to critics who contend that the bishops are unnecessarily politicizing their agenda, Bishop Lori said that when Church leaders defend the free exercise of religion, they do so not with any partisan intent, but as “watchmen” seeking to protect and advance the public good.

He called for vigorous educational efforts to draw the laity into the battle to defend the First Amendment — just as many have already become active on life issues.

“Together we will do our best to awaken in ourselves, in our fellow Catholics and in the culture at large a new appreciation for religious liberty and a renewed appreciation to defend it,” Bishop Lori said.

The Committee on Religious Liberty will provide broad guidance to USCCB members and steer the conference’s response to problematic federal rules, he said in an interview.

But legal challenges arising at the state level will be addressed by state Catholic conferences, while each local bishop retains ultimate authority to steer his own course.

And, in the years ahead, it seems likely that Church leaders may disagree over strategy, while uniting behind common principles.

When the state of Illinois last month required foster care and adoption agencies to provide placements with unmarried and same-sex couples, three Catholic dioceses challenged the law, but when that effort failed, two dioceses stopped placing children, while a third allowed its social agency to be spun off into an independent entity, unaffiliated with the Church.

Indeed, just as the pro-life movement was often roiled by conflicting strategies for defeating legal abortion, so constitutional experts and Church leaders are likely to adopt a variety of solutions to address religious-freedom concerns.

After a Massachusetts court struck down the state’s ban on same-sex “marriage” in 2004, the decision prompted a tumultuous legislative battle to reverse the court’s action. At the time, supporters of traditional marriage did not press for a religious exemption, fearing it would provide “political cover” for politicians whose constituents were Catholics.

Now, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., faces a renewed battle to legalize same-sex “marriage” in Maryland early next year, and he vows to secure “an adequate religious exemption to shield the Church from future lawsuits.”

“I don’t buy the idea that you don’t include any religious protection upfront because it might discourage opposition,” Cardinal Wuerl said in an interview. “We need to have this exemption, even as we fight any attempt to change marriage.”

When that fight heats up again in the Maryland statehouse, Cardinal Wuerl will likely be accused of “playing politics,” but he seemed resigned to the inevitable broadsides.

Indeed, the mood at the USCCB meeting suggested that Church leaders know they can’t afford to back down, and they will move forward with a non-partisan defense of religious freedom.

As Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia put it, religious freedom “should become an election-year issue, because our identity as Catholics is under threat.”

Joan Frawley Desmond attended the USCCB meeting in Baltimore.

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