Lori: Crossing the Rubicon?

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chair of the USCCB’s ad hoc committee on religious liberty, recently spoke with Our Sunday Visitor regarding the religious liberty fight in the United States.

Our Sunday Visitor: As the HHS mandate battle continues, what is the current status of religious liberty in the United States?

Archbishop William E. Lori: I don’t think we’re in the position where we can say that if one or two or three things were changed everything would be OK again. I think we’re in the position, rather, where the sands are shifting beneath our feet, and the position of churches and church institutions, even the position of conscientious, intentional believers in our culture, is shifting and that the scope of toleration for religious expression and for religious institutions is narrowing. It’s important for us to step back and realize we’re in a different spot than we were.

OSV: What is the best possible outcome of this ongoing religious liberty fight?

Archbishop Lori: The first outcome every bishop should wish ... is that Catholics would become newly attuned to the value of religious freedom and would, frankly, cherish their faith more intentionally. So the first outcome any bishop ought to hope for is that people will be aware of religious liberty issues because they have been evangelized and because their faith matters to them and because they want to practice it not just in church, but at home and at work. A second outcome would be, in the meantime, as we are working on that, we could have some, at least, place-markers so that religious liberty won’t erode further. My hope would be that somehow or another, at the end of the day, the Church is going to have the freedom for her institutions to serve the poor and to bear witness according to our Church teachings, be they popular or unpopular, accepted or rejected.

OSV: What are the biggest religious liberty challenges facing the Church?

Archbishop Lori: Prior to [the HHS mandate] we were able to fashion our health insurance plans for employees and other aspects of our internal operations simply and solely according to our own teachings. Chaos did not ensue; we provided very fine health plans for our employees. ... Now, in one way or another, we have been asked to become entangled or involved with providing for our employees benefits that are contrary to the teaching of the Church. There are different types of triggering mechanisms that have been proposed. But the bottom line is that we are introducing to our internal plans a Gospel different from the one we want to preach and promote. And that, to me, is what we really have to look at here. It isn’t just a question of how close we might be to some moral evil; it’s a question of whether we are introducing an anti-evangelization word into our institutions or not.

In terms of the other types of issues ... the ones that would arise with the coming of same-sex marriage, the tendency of colleges to sort of muzzle Christian groups — so many other local, nondiscrimination ordinances that have no religious freedom protections at all. I think the massive effort that we have is to evangelize, to catechize, to raise awareness, so that people who are believers and citizens will both finally speak for themselves here.

OSV: Why bother standing up for religious freedom?

Archbishop Lori: The real issue here is whether or not we’re sort of “crossing the Rubicon” here on religious liberty. If we agree to this so-called accommodation, when it pertains to contraception, will we so readily agree to one about abortion, surgical abortion, if and when that should come down the line. Would our reasoning work for that? In other words, we have to ask ourselves, as we depart from this status-quo ante, where are we headed? What will this mean for our church institutions? How heavily regulated will they be in the future? How free or unfree will they be to proclaim the Gospel of family and the Gospel of life? I think those are serious questions worth pondering and worth having a struggle for.

OSV: What should parishes/churches be doing to continue to stay involved?

Archbishop Lori: Nothing beats instruction from the pulpit. People love, trust their parish priests [and] need to hear from parish priests about this. It can be difficult to preach on, but there are so many materials and so much guidance. If we never hear it from the pulpit on Sunday, we’re not going to think we have a problem. Churches are still open; no one’s gone to jail over this yet. People tend to think “well, it doesn’t look too different.” It’s very important that people be alerted, not in an hysterical way, but simply in a very calm, reasonable way about the challenges that are being faced — what the real nature of the religious freedom challenges are.

Secondly, almost everywhere — state Catholic conferences, the bishops’ conference itself — is giving people vehicles for expressing their views and their opinions. [It’s] very important that we speak to our elected and appointed officials, very important that we raise awareness among fellow citizens. Catholic lay people every day are on the front lines and are in a position to do this. It takes courage; you get push back, but it is really worth doing.

Gretchen R. Crowe is editor of OSV Newsweekly.