‘We will not fail,” Archbishop William Lori declared at the quarterly meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Atlanta on June 13.
Tasked with leading a committee on religious liberty, the Baltimore archbishop was not making an empty boast but asserting a confidence born of belief. He was not prophesying the fate of the HHS mandate that requires employers to offer insurance covering contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients. He was not proclaiming that the Supreme Court will overturn all or part of Obamacare. He was not forecasting GOP victory in the 2012 elections. He was simply noting that those gathered at the conference ultimately have their eyes set on eternal life and not so much on November, breaking-news tweets, the next hour’s headlines, or even the Sunday-collection numbers. The bishops, like all of us, have serious civic responsibilities, but such duties aren’t everything, even when they are essential.
The bishops’ unprecedented unanimity is welcome news from the conference: All are deeply committed to defending religious liberty. In a show of support, one of the bishops most identified with potential discord, Stephen Blaire, of Stockton, Calif., didn’t let the meeting close without adamantly insisting that conscience rights be defended. And for those who doubted still, conference president Timothy Cardinal Dolan led his men in a unanimous voice vote in support of what the body has stated thus far (most notably in a March statement, “United for Religious Freedom”). The reporters who are looking for cracks in this rare united front will be disappointed.
Chicago’s Francis Cardinal George then went on to ask one of the most provocative questions of the session: “What if we fail?” His question did not convey a crisis of faith but served to remind listeners that the federal government has put American employers in the position where they must choose whether to obey Caesar rather than God, must pay potentially bankrupting fines if they choose to practice their faith, or must quit offering health insurance if they wish to honor their religious values.
My alma mater, the Catholic University of America, is chartered by the U.S. bishops and grants pontifical degrees to some of its students. According to HHS rules, though, it is not a religious institution and would therefore be required to follow the HHS mandate. This absurd attempt to redefine and shrink the religious sphere provides a tremendous opportunity for believers to reaffirm their role in public life.
Churchgoing Catholics may hear a lot about a New Evangelization in the coming year, and the pope will launch a year of faith in October. Ultimately, the effort is all about rebuilding. And one hopes the endeavor will have ecumenical appeal — after all, a great many of us believe religion to be a good. Or at least, we used to. Do we still? Will we continue to?
Our engagement in the defense of religious freedom will tell the tale to history.
“We protect religious freedom because we think that religion is a good thing,” Catholic University president John Garvey put it simply, in remarks at the bishops’ meeting. “The Pilgrims, Catholics, Quakers, and other nonconformists who settled these shores came here because they saw it as their duty to know, love, and serve God, and they wanted a place where they could do that without hindrance.”
We’re entering a period in the run-up to July 4 that the bishops have dubbed a Fortnight for Freedom. Although it necessarily involves politics, it’s about much more. It’s a reminder as well as a challenge. The defense of religious liberty requires prayer and witness, education and clarity, prudence and courage, and, above all, authenticity.
This fight can also help us understand how we got to this radicalizing moment: We lost confidence. Many of us have voluntarily privatized religion, publicly conceding that our most precious rights are fit merely for pew talk. And we’ve allowed government to seize authority that is beyond its bounds. But that’s not right, and you don’t have to be a Catholic — or a conservative Republican — to see it. You’re free not to have religion. But you must be free to live it if you feel the call.
Whatever the Supreme Court does, whatever happens with various lawsuits, whether or not the Obama administration backs down and rescinds its HHS mandate, “we have the love of Christ and the truth about the human person.” That’s how Archbishop Lori explained his confidence. It is a confidence with some precedent: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39).
If we believe, we ought show it in our actions. We ought to be a people who love and live as if we believe what we say in all aspects of our lives — personal, political, and cultural. That’s the opportunity of the present moment: to be who we say we are. And to insist that we remain free to live by our belief.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.