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

On the night of February 17, I took a phone call from a senior Catholic official who was concerned about the pro-gay-marriage votes in the Washington and Maryland legislatures and the possible spillover effect of those defeats on the unity the U.S. bishops had thus far displayed in resisting the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate. I told him not to worry. “The bishops of the United States,” I said, “haven’t been so unified since John Carroll took a deep breath in 1791 and decided something.”

In 1791, of course, Bishop Carroll of Baltimore was the only Catholic bishop in the young Republic.

This striking episcopal unity not only held during the March 13–14 meeting of the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it was strengthened. The vote to approve a statement entitled “United for Religious Freedom,” in which the bishops declared that there would be no compromise with the Obama administration on the mandate itself or on the bogus “accommodation” of religious concerns, was unanimous, with bishops from across the spectrum of responsible Catholic opinion joining together to lay down an unmistakable marker. Thus those who reported fissures opening within the bishops’ conference that would lead to a retreat from the rigor of the bishops’ challenge to the administration were decisively rebutted. So were those whose leaks to the press were obvious attempts to paint a picture of discord within the episcopate and to smear some of the bishops’ ablest staffers as rabid “culture warriors.” And so were those journalists who, foolishly, tried to intimidate bishops, who don’t take kindly to such blunt-edged tactics.

Full marks, then, to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for guiding the Administrative Committee to a unanimous and tough statement, navigating the rocks and shoals of some bishops’ concerns about the substance of the USCCB’s challenge to the administration (which touched on questions of the very nature of religious freedom) and other bishops’ concerns about tactics.

On the substance of the bishops’ challenge to the administration’s diktat, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut (whom Dolan had earlier named the chairman of an Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty), has been the key figure. Hewing closely to the Catholic theory of religious freedom laid down by the Second Vatican Council and Blessed John Paul II, Bishop Lori has insisted on the indivisibility of the first liberty. Religious freedom, in other words, has both personal and corporate dimensions; both individuals and institutions enjoy the right of religious freedom. Thus any attempt to solve practical problems, such as those which the mandate poses to Catholic institutions and to conscientious Catholic employers and employees, by splitting the difference (i.e., the bishops’ defending their institutions but leaving individual Catholics to fend for themselves against Leviathan) would not only be pastorally irresponsible; it would mean an abandonment of Catholic tradition. Lori’s thoughtful defense of the indivisibility of religious freedom in recent months, and during the Administrative Committee meeting, was one key in forging the unified and principled position the bishops took in “United for Religious Freedom.”

This was not without irony. Bishop Lori first became a vocal public advocate for religious freedom when Connecticut legislators, looking for payback after the Catholic Church had opposed a statewide gay-marriage statute, introduced a bill that would have so circumscribed the Church’s authority to control its own internal life that the Catholic Church in Connecticut would have become a de facto department of the state government. Lori led an exceptionally vigorous campaign against this attack and won the day. That crash course in the substantive and political defense of religious freedom has served Bishop Lori, and the entire Church in the United States, well, as Lori has moved onto a larger stage. So kudos to those Connecticut gay activists and their legislative allies who so overshot the mark in the Nutmeg State that the ricochet has reverberated around the country.