After ‘United for Religious Freedom’
The bishops’ road to unanimity and the path ahead

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops


George Weigel

The USCCB will continue to support the Fortenberry bill in the House, passage of which would help nail down the point that the Senate vote against the Blunt amendment (which would have restored the religious freedoms embedded in Hillarycare) does not represent anything like a national consensus. But whatever Father Reese’s judgment of the bishops’ political smarts, they know quite well what the Fortenberry bill’s fate will be when it is sent across the Capitol to the black hole presided over by Harry Reid. So the quite realistic leaders of the bishops’ conference know that the winning strategy here involves the federal courts, where they can be expected to have the backing of world-class legal talent.

“United for Religious Freedom” is an important statement on an issue of first principles, and a robust defense of the prerogatives of civil society. As such, it is a service to the entire country. As for the future of the Catholic Church in the United States, the past several months have underscored the incoherence into which progressive Catholicism has fallen: an intellectual incoherence that now seems to have been wedded to political ineptness. The Catholic Lite Brigade saddled up and rode to the sounds of the cannonading, in the days before the USCCB Administrative Committee meeting; and it suffered the same fate as a nobler Light Brigade did at Balaclava in 1854.

Prior to the Administrative Committee meeting, Michael Sean Winters, who plays the role of Bukharin at the online National Catholic Reporter intelligently and with brio and who had been a sharp critic of the HHS mandate in the early going, advised Cardinal Dolan to be like the great Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore (leader of Catholicism in America from the late 19th through the early 20th century) and take the “long view,” the implication being that the bishops’ rigorous criticism of the mandate/“accommodation” had been rather myopic. I would suggest that Dolan (who knows the Gibbons legacy well) is doing precisely that. In standing fast on first principles, he is helping guide the Church through the greatest assault on religious freedom since the Blaine Amendments, and he is doing so against a temporal horizon far longer than that set by election cycles.

Should the Obama administration’s attempt to dumb religious freedom down win the day, the Catholic Church — and indeed every religious community that challenges the hegemony of the sexual revolution and its ally, the Leviathan state — is in very serious trouble, in the short term and over the long haul. If, on the other hand, the bishops and their allies across the religious and political spectrums succeed, they will not only have done the country a great service, they will have set the legal foundations for a robustly evangelical Catholicism far into the future: a Catholicism that, as Winters puts it, will make its contribution toward “a culture of life that will better reflect our highest ideals as both Catholics and Americans than the culture we have today.” 

Advancing that noble goal, however, means speaking truth to power, which is precisely what the USCCB Administrative Committee did in “United for Religious Freedom” — and precisely what the bishops’ conference will continue to do as this drama unfolds.

— George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.