Bishops' conference focuses on religious liberty threats
Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros of Brooklyn, N.Y., studies a document Nov. 14 during the U.S. bishops’ annual fall meeting in Baltimore. CNS photo

When the American bishops five years ago reorganized their national conference and substantially trimmed its budget, program and staff, the move was generally viewed as an effort to cut back on an organization that had become too expensive and unwieldy. 

And so it was. But the hierarchy’s action also had another, generally unnoticed aim: to create a national organization better able to respond effectively to changing needs and challenges facing the Church in a fast-changing and frequently contentious society. 

Judging by the fall general meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Nov. 14-16 in Baltimore, the bishops may have succeeded in shaping a streamlined organization — a “leaner, meaner” USCCB it’s been called. 

If so, it has arrived on the scene in time to face up to the biggest external threat the Church in the United States has faced in years — a growing effort by government at both the federal and state levels to force religious institutions to violate their moral convictions or else close down. 

Feisty response

While the bishops as a body seem more than ready for this fight, observers see the impetus for a feisty response coming especially from the USCCB president, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York. At a news conference during the Baltimore meeting, Archbishop Dolan denounced what he described as a campaign of secularist inspiration that aimed to “neuter religion … to push religion back into the sacristy.” 

According to a Church lawyer close to the situation, the current conflict marks a new phase in a struggle brewing for years. Before, the Church fought to prevent legalization of things like abortion and same-sex marriage. Now, increasingly, it finds itself having to resist government coercion to cooperate with these same things. 

The problem has lately become visible in several ways. 

Church agencies operating social welfare programs under government contracts are coming under increasing pressure to provide their clients with contraception, sterilization and drugs that cause early abortion, or to place children for adoption or foster care with same-sex couples. If they refuse, they face loss of the program contracts. 

Meanwhile, too, the Department of Justice has moved from refusing to defend the Defense of Marriage Act — federal legislation defining marriage as a man-woman relationship — to attacking DOMA in federal court while dismissing opposition to same-sex marriage as bigotry. 

‘Erosion’ of freedom

For its part, the Church doesn’t argue that it has a right to government contracts or that homosexuals don’t have rights. Instead, it claims a religious liberty right enshrined in the First Amendment to compete for government contracts without being placed at a disadvantage because of its beliefs. As for same-sex marriage, while acknowledging that gays have rights, the Church insists that the rights don’t extend to forcing a redefinition of marriage, which it cannot accept. 

During an extended discussion in Baltimore of the priorities of the bishops’ conference, the bishops gave overwhelming support to adding religious liberty to the list. Even before the meeting, the USCCB administrative committee had authorized several key steps. 

These include a new blue-ribbon Committee on Religious Liberty to spearhead the new effort under the chairmanship of Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., and with the assistance of consultants who include top lawyers and law professors. A religious liberty office with a lawyer and a lobbyist is being formed at the Washington headquarters of USCCB. And Anthony Picarello, the conference’s general counsel, has been named associate general secretary to coordinate staff activities in this area. Picarello, an attorney with extensive First Amendment experience, will also continue as general counsel. 

Highlighting the USCCB meeting was a lengthy report by Bishop Lori, which he called a “stem-winder” and which the bishops enthusiastically received. In it, he spoke of an ongoing “erosion of religious liberty” through the imposition on churches and religious groups of “court-mandated ‘rights’” — such as a right to abortion and a right to same-sex marriage — which have no basis in the text of the Constitution. 

“As a result, the freedom of religious entities to provide services according to their own lights, to defend publicly their teachings, and even to choose and manage their own personnel is coming under increased attack,” he said. 

While stressing the importance of the bishops’ role as “watchmen” in defense of religious liberty, Bishop Lori also called for the active involvement of priests and laity in the work that needs to be done. Rather than creating new structures, he said, the need is to use what already exists — “parishes, schools, communications networks” — in order to “re-focus and re-energize” Catholics to respond to the threat to religious liberty. 

Bishops’ head meets Obama

A week before the USCCB meeting, Archbishop Dolan had an off-the-record White House meeting with President Obama at which the two men discussed the Church’s religious liberty concerns along with other issues. While declining to go into specifics, the archbishop called the conversation “extraordinarily friendly … very candid.” He said Obama had assured him he would look into the matters now troubling the Church. 

“I left the meeting feeling somewhat at peace,” Archbishop Dolan told reporters. 

Good news perhaps. But no one imagines that one friendly conversation with the president will solve this problem, which began before the Obama years and seems certain to continue long after them. The bishops and the Church have a long fight ahead. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.