On Friday night in the parish in which he was raised, Archbishop William E. Lori spoke about the poor and religious liberty. As I hope you know, Catholics and many others – most prominently the Green family that runs the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain — are suing the federal Department of Health and Human Services over the Obamacare “preventive services” regulation that mandates that abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and female sterilization be covered in employee health plans. If you’re a believing Evangelical, you’re going to have a problem with that abortion mandate. If you’re a Catholic agency running soup kitchens and other charities, or social services, including schools, you’re also going to have a problem with that. But the Obama administration’s stubbornness in narrowing religious liberty in America here puts the Little Sisters of the Poor in the position of having to fight the mandate in court. That’s ridiculous and not a good precedent — it’s not good stewardship of the treasure of religious liberty.
And while it’s an important principle to fight for in this very practical way, holding the line for history and for the world that still looks to us as a keeper of this flame, believers are also doing this “for the faces of the poor,” Archbishop Lori explained on Friday night. As John Garvey, president of my alma mater, the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (also suing HHS), has put it: The right to religious liberty is about the right to love God. Agree or disagree with my prayer or hymn, but these people are at the heart of a flourishing democratic society, as the Founders and Tocequeville would tell you.
In his Friday speech, Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, stressed that the “struggle against the HHS mandate is not about the small print. It is about protecting the Church’s ability to serve the poor in dignity and truth, in proclaiming and acting upon the Gospel, as Pope Francis has said, ‘in its entirety.’”
Taking his cue from Francis, who takes cues from the Gospels, and, like the bishops who cast their vote for him in March, the Holy Spirit, Lori repeated themes from Pope Francis: that we must serve the poor, that we must bring the Church “to the margins,” that we must “know and love the poor . . . respect the poor . . . [and] learn from the poor.”
“When we view those we are privileged to serve not as objects of our largesse” but as our brothers, he explained, “the importance of religious liberty becomes clear.” They are human beings with “rights and liberties” that commodities, statistics and trends” do not.
I moderated a panel a few weeks ago for the World Youth Alliance about the decommodification of culture. This is what Pope Francis talks about when he talks about intolerance for our disposable society.
Lori said: “As we seek to meet the immediate needs of the poor and vulnerable and as we engage in efforts to promote authentic human development, we do no one a favor by compromising religious freedom – by acquiescing to the creation of a society where more and more the government can privatize religious faith or otherwise discourage it by promoting an overarching and aggressive secularism.”
This is about the physical and the spiritual, as we are both. We grow in faith together, as integrated wholes, in community.
The defense of religious liberty got a shout-out in that papal exhortation last week, which isn’t just about politics or law or even service. It’s about human dignity. And that’s part of this picture Pope Francis is trying to wake us up to: Loved by a Creator, who loves the poor, the sinner, with a pierced heart of mercy, you can’t in good conscience let your brother alone to suffer because of a failed program or indifference to his plight. As Archbishop Lori put it, “our hospitals, charities, and schools are extraordinary precisely because they recognize the transcendent dignity of the human person, and conduct their affairs, internally and externally, in a way that demonstrates the depth and sincerity of that conviction, that basis for mission.”
Fans of the HHS mandate are having a ball making corporations-don’t-have-religious-liberty jokes now that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the Green family – and other family businesses’ — religious-liberty plea over the Obamacare regulation. But it’s not only the Greens – the Obama administration has picked a fight with the poorest kids in the backyard of the federal government, too. That’s unconscionable for a country that purports to be free.
During his morning homily today, Pope Francis urged that we might let God look us in the face. You do that, he keeps saying, and it’s harder to ignore the faces of the poor, of those who feel alone and lost. And, as he pleads with the flock he shepherds (in the Vatican, in Rome, in the global church, in the world as missionary territory) to realize, it’s all part of a complete picture people of faith need to be discerning their role in all the time.