The Truth about Religious Liberty
D.C.’s cardinal teaches.

Donald Cardinal Wuerl


Kathryn Jean Lopez

‘I am always perplexed when I see a discussion of this business. Surely, surely, the truth should outweigh political preference.”

“This business” is the current debate over religious liberty in America, and it is the archbishop of Washington, D.C., who is perplexed. In an interview with National Review Online, Donald Cardinal Wuerl talks about the people who would be affected by the Obama administration’s insistence that all employers offer insurance coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs as preventive health-care services.

High on the list of potential victims are schoolchildren being served by the Catholic Church in the backyard of the federal government. “We have nearly 100 schools educating nearly 28,000 kids,” the cardinal says. In “the poorest part of the District of Columbia, we have 800 kids who simply need help getting an education.” Among the choices the Church will face if the Health and Human Services mandate goes into effect is preemptively closing the doors to those children — or being forced to do so as fines for noncompliance mount. At that point, these children “would be thrown back into those failing D.C. schools,” the cardinal says. “We’re giving them a chance.”

(It’s important to note that unless the whole of the president’s health-care legislation is thrown out by the Supreme Court Thursday, this preventive-services mandate will remain a problem. It is not the same as the “individual mandate,” which the court might well throw out while leaving the rest of the legislation in force.)

Those 800 children Cardinal Wuerl mentioned in particular attend the four schools that make up the Consortium of Catholic Academies. These schools need the most financial help to survive, and are located in the poorest areas of Washington, which have the most kids living in homes below the poverty level of any area in the country. (Helping kids attend these schools via the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program was a bipartisan project of John Boehner and Ted Kennedy; Joe Lieberman took over the Democratic side after Kennedy’s death.)

The cardinal sees the work of these schools and other Church community work as being “compromised simply because we have a new definition of what constitutes religious liberty.” Speaking of the tiny exemption HHS has carved out for narrowly defined religious institutions, he says: “Think of it: This is the first time there has ever been such a narrow, exclusive definition — and it’s certainly exclusive. Someone pointed out that Mother Teresa wouldn’t qualify. This is all so narrow.” He further unpacks the absurdity of it: “Those Consortium schools wouldn’t qualify as being Catholic because over 70 percent of the kids in them aren’t Catholic. And when hiring teachers to teach those kids, we don’t say, ‘You must be Catholic.’ We don’t ask that. So that’s where we are.”

And it’s not just the children being served by the Consortium schools who would be adversely affected by the misleadingly labeled “contraception mandate.” Youngsters enabled to attend Catholic schools by the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships, which Boehner and Lieberman have just saved, would also be hurt. In response to the “war on women” rhetoric, the cardinal points out that “as many of the kids affected are girls as boys.” Further, “tens of thousands of women are being assisted every day in shelters. The shelters are for women as well as for men. I wish people would just look at that and say, ‘You know, this is a body that’s caring for everybody.’ Reaching out to help everybody.”

Making sure the flock knows that story is part of the point of the ongoing Fortnight for Freedom, the 14-day period ending on Independence Day that the Catholic bishops of the United States have designated for prayer, education, and study focused on religious liberty. At an event last Sunday evening dubbed a celebration of freedom, held just blocks from the White House at George Washington University, nearly 2,000 Catholics joined the cardinal for hymns, reflections, and history lessons about religious liberty, followed by Eucharistic adoration. The cardinal describes it as an evening of “history, prayer, singing, and a reflection on the grace of God.”

“We’re doing what the Church does best: Teaching and praying,” Cardinal Wuerl tells me. “The whole goal of this is to invite people into an awareness of the gift of freedom, a gift from God. At the same time, it is an obligation on us to protect it.”