Most Catholics, especially readers of NRO, are well aware that American Catholic bishops are observing a “Fortnight for Freedom” to drum up opposition to the Health and Human Services abortifacient-insurance mandate. What might be lost in all the coverage is that the opposition is not a power play on the part of the bishops, or some sort of Republican political ploy. Nor is it a battle energizing only Catholics. Here in coastal Alabama, as in many places across the country, the alarm is widespread, intense — and decidedly ecumenical.
Nowhere will these realities be more apparent than in a remarkable forum scheduled for Tuesday night, June 26, at Mobile’s St. Ignatius Catholic Church, capping an already event-filled eight days that began even before the official launch of the Fortnight. The forum’s four featured speakers in support of conscience rights make a fascinating crew.
The host and lead speaker will be St. Ignatius’s pastor, the Rev. Bry Shields, who also serves as president of the 1,100-student McGill-Toolen High School (made famous during the confirmation hearings for Judge William Pryor of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals). In 1984, Shields became one of the first of a rare breed: married Episcopal clergy who converted to the Catholic priesthood under a special “pastoral provision” approved by the Vatican three years earlier.
Moderating the forum will be another religious convert, Norman McCrummen. McCrummen, the son of a Baptist minister, was a college administrator and scholar of Middle Eastern affairs when he felt called to become a Presbyterian minister; he retired from that position last summer after a hugely successful twelve years, only to convert to Catholicism within months and become an active lay leader at St. Ignatius.
Joining them will be Mark Foley, an ordained Baptist minister and president of the Baptist-affiliated University of Mobile (full disclosure: I have an adjunct affiliation with the university), and Agnes Tennenbaum, a regionally renowned, 90-year-old Jewish survivor of Nazi concentration camps.
One would have a hard time imagining a more ecumenical panel of speakers.
These four will build on the case made at two forums in the past week by the Most Rev. Thomas J. Rodi, archbishop of Mobile, who also holds a law degree from Tulane University and a licentiate in Catholic canon law. On June 19, Rodi wowed the local chapter of the Federalist Society with a brisk and learned review of American case law on economic liberty, and he followed June 21 with a tour de force of a sermon in a packed cathedral to officially kick off the Fortnight for Freedom.
“This mandate separates churches from their ministries,” the archbishop said to the Federalist Society. HHS now defines religious practice so narrowly, he explained, that it excludes most ministries providing services or employment to those outside their denominational bounds. The Little Sisters of the Poor, he noted, along with Catholic social services, Catholic schools, and a host of other programs and institutions, would not be exempt from the HHS mandate.
“Under these rules, it is very possible that Jesus would not qualify as religious. I seem to remember something about him ministering to a Samaritan woman.” (And, we recall, he cured lepers of any faith.)
Shields elaborated recently on the further ramifications of restricting the definition of “religious institution”:
What happens is, when the religious organizations are intimidated or forced out — and this HHS mandate is only one instance of religious communities getting hurt; think of the Catholic adoption agencies in Boston – then the only thing left standing is the administrative state. . . . While we are acting from motives of faith, which is appropriate in the public square, the issue is just as much about our rights as Americans: De Tocqueville made that point about the genius of America. The democracy of our country can only work if you have a really strong civic life. I see the movement to curtail some of the engagement in the public arena of faith communities as a very, very bad thing for the democracy.
It was with that conviction that Shields approached his cross-denominational friend Foley, who already had appeared on local news and written several columns opposing the mandate, and McCrummen and Tennenbaum. “We have to reach out to a wider community,” Shields said.
Foley has been working for months to build a wide coalition against the mandate:
We have been meeting for some time to explore ways we can be involved in bringing our energies and our resources to bear on the preservation of religious liberty, which we believe is being threatened. We’re not trying to influence the government as [though we are the] church per se, but citizens of faith of every persuasion have always been the reinforcers of religious liberty. By no means is [this effort] limited to clergy. As the president of an Evangelical and Baptist organization, I am involved because it is a real issue. I am involved because there must be strength in the churches coming together on these issues, not standing apart. I have not sacrificed my theological convictions. We are aware there are theological differences between us, but we are much more aware now that there are convictions bringing us together.
“To quote our old friend from the ’60s, Bob Dylan,” he concluded with a laugh, these “‘times they are a-changing’ — but we have to start swimming together in order to once again make our influence as citizens of faith known and to state our case.”
When I reached Agnes Tennenbaum on Friday, she was feeling a bit under the weather but said she was looking forward to Tuesday night’s forum. Then, rousing herself and expressing great enthusiasm, she said her theme for the evening would be simple: “Freedom of religion is why people came to this country. Our founders came here looking for freedom of religion. So did I.”
That’s why this battle is not and should not be merely Catholic, but catholic, in the sense of universal. On the Gulf Coast, it quite clearly is.
— Quin Hillyer is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and a senior editor for The American Spectator.