Politics & Policy

The Truth about Religious Liberty

D.C.’s cardinal teaches.

‘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.”

A small group stood across the street protesting the politics of the Fortnight event; their sign read, “bishops: we need pastors, not politicians. your antics are hurting the church.” An honest observer, however, would be hard-pressed to find a tinge of partisanship about the gathering led by Cardinal Wuerl.

“There’s nothing partisan about saying, ‘You know, the Bill of Rights is a good thing,’” Cardinal Wuerl insists. “There’s nothing partisan about saying freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press are good things.” But the cardinal-archbishop is not surprised by this accusation, which has filled many a headline and has been the subject of much commentary on the Fortnight. “It’s inevitable,” he says, particularly in Washington. “Here in the nation’s capital, there is something of a mentality that tends to see life through the lens of politics. So when people here look at prayer, when they look at coming together to teach, coming together to educate, it’s their lens that sees us as political.”

He emphasizes that “everybody’s invited” to the Fortnight. Catholic congregations, he notes, include “Republicans, Democrats, Green-party members, and socialists. That’s one of the beautiful things about the Catholic Church. It’s everybody. So what we talk about is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And let the politicians figure out how to make things work.”

Listing the saints whose feast days fall on the liturgical calendar during the Fortnight — Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher on June 21, John the Baptist on the 24th, Saints Peter and Paul on the 29th, and the Roman martyrs of the first century on the 30th — he emphasizes that “people who suffer for their faith weren’t all centuries ago. All you have to do is look around — Spain, Mexico, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania . . . In our lifetimes, people died rather than give up their religious faith, rather than violate their consciences.”

That is mercifully not quite the prospect facing American Catholics today: “We’re not going to be nailed to a cross. We’re not going to be burned in the Coliseum.” He continues, “But we are asked: Can you stand up and say, ‘Religious liberty is important to me’? Can say you say that out loud?” Doing so, Cardinal Wuerl adds, “is just our history.”

Asked how a narrative painting Catholic bishops as waging a partisan political campaign or a “war on women” can gain any traction, Cardinal Wuerl wonders if it isn’t simply “that old principle” at work: “If you say something often enough, people will start to believe you. If you say it over and over again, there are going to be some who say, ‘I guess that’s the case.’ That’s why it’s so important for the Church to have ways of getting our story out.”

“For much of the secular media,” Cardinal Wuerl observes, “this is all about contraception. They’re missing the point on religious liberty.” Schoolchildren in D.C.’s poorest areas are at the heart of the story.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.


The Latest