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Dialogue, Religious Freedom, and the Role of the Bishops in Public Life

 

November 14, 2016 Open Session
Oral Report on the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty
Archbishop William E. Lori
Baltimore, MD

Introduction

Thank you, Archbishop, and good afternoon, Brother Bishops.  Today, I would like to do something a little different.  The Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty is involved in a unique task.  Our work gets at the heart of the relationship between the Church and the state, and that relationship affects the work of other committees and other ministries.  And so I would like to reflect on our role as a body of bishops to serve the mission of the Church in public life, and where the promotion of religious freedom fits in that service.

At this fraught moment in our country's history, we must help to build a civil society in which persons can encounter one another as persons, who see the world differently, yet are seeking truth all the same.

What are we called to do?

Let me draw attention to four tasks that I see for us as bishops, as we think about how the Church interacts with the political sphere.

First and foremost, we are called to pray for the people to whom God has entrusted us.  In our prayer and sacrifice, we not only fulfill our duty to sanctify the world, but we come to take on the burdens of the world.  Prayer is the privileged pathway to and expression of solidarity with the struggles of our people at home and abroad.

Second, we must teach and preach.  The bishop is the chief evangelizer and catechist for his local church.  Each of us must dedicate himself to the formation of the faithful.  This includes promoting the Church's social teaching on human dignity, solidarity, and work of the common good.

Third, we must work to equip lay people to take public action.  We have to call Christians to take their place as missionary disciples.   And we have to support those women and men who answer the call by serving the poor and advocating for the vulnerable in public life.  This also includes promoting a spirit of dialogue, including our politicians.

So, we must pray, teach, and equip.  With these tasks, we acknowledge that in the political arena, it is primarily the laity who take action, and we as bishops are to focus on formation and sanctification.

But that is not all.

Fourth, and finally, sometimes we must speak up for ourselves.  Particularly when the power of the state is marshalled against the Church's ministries of mercy, the bishop must say something.  He must speak truth to power.  To be sure, we must be winsome, but we must not be silent.

Threats

We all wish we could focus on praying, teaching, and equipping.  However, we do not support the faithful if we ignore the challenges that we face and will continue to face.

Numerous laws and regulations—federal, state and local—as well as lawsuits have created a troubling landscape.  Both our own Migration and Refugee Services, as well as Catholic health care and charities, repeatedly face challenges from those who seek to restrict their work.  While the contours of the political landscape are changing and have not yet come into full view, it is crucial that we remain steadfast in our efforts to promote a "healthy pluralism."

But I don't want to focus on legal threats.  Law is downstream of culture, and legal trends often reflect prevailing attitudes in the academy.

So, consider a few quotes that reflect voices in the culture.

A Baptist ethics professor, who supports marriage redefinition and is the author of a widely used ethics textbook, recently gave this warning:

It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. …Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you."
—Rev. Dr. David Gushee

In a different context, a Harvard law professor says this about those of us who continue to believe what nature teaches about marriage:

My own judgment is that taking a hard line ('You lost, live with it') is better than trying to accommodate the losers… Trying to be nice to the losers didn't work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.)"
—Mark Tushnet


Let me say this is an equal ideological tendency.

In a similar vein, the Chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights made this statement upon the issuance of its report entitled "Peaceful Coexistence":

The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance."
—Martin Castro


We all agree that unjust discrimination is wrong.  But the path to "peaceful coexistence" is not opened up by trampling on the consciences or the good work of people of faith.  Government coercion cannot unite a pluralistic society.  If people of faith – whether Catholic or Protestant, Jewish or Muslim – are to serve the common good and contribute to the healing of our country, we are going to need the space in civil society to do so.  As Pope Francis put it last year in his speech on the South Lawn of the White House:

American Catholics are committed to building a society which is truly tolerant and inclusive, to safeguarding the rights of individuals and communities, and to rejecting every form of unjust discrimination. With countless other people of good will, they are likewise concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respect their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. …And, as my brothers, the United States bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it."


We as bishops owe it to faithful Catholics, and all people whose religious beliefs and exercise are maligned in the Civil Rights Commission's report, to continue to speak up for religious freedom and conscience rights for all.

Our Commitment to Dialogue

Now, the work our Committee does for religious freedom is not only, or even mostly, about resisting unjust federal mandates.  We want to promote a vibrant and diverse civil society, where people and institutions have the freedom to truly encounter one another and to engage in respectful dialogue, including on the questions that may divide them the most.

The recently concluded election cycle revealed a distressingly riven nation.  The path to peace within our country will require people of faith to engage in serious dialogue that works through even profound differences respectfully.

As Pope Francis told us bishops, when he spoke with us at St. Matthew's Cathedral: 

Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love" (Mt 20:1-16).

Catholic teaching on religious freedom is rooted in human dignity, a dignity which derives from the nature of the human person as truth-seeker.

However, too often, we have seen people engage in public discourse as if seeking power and destroying one's opponents were the goal of public life.  At this fraught moment in our country's history, we must help to build a civil society in which persons can encounter one another as persons, who see the world differently, yet are seeking truth all the same.

Hope

We have some reason to believe that our teaching and advocacy efforts have had a positive effect.

Last month, we conducted some opinion polling to get a sense for attitudes on religious freedom, and it appears that they may be improving.  Let me note a couple of items.

Opposition to the HHS Mandate saw a 7-point jump from 2014.

Furthermore, we have seen an 11-point increase in agreement with the right of religious organizations to maintain standards of employee conduct based on their moral beliefs.

I note these preliminary data simply to say that our voice, along with the voices of so many others, can make a positive difference.  These are among the first fruits of our long term, "constructive engagement" with our troubled culture on questions of religious freedom.

In Conclusion

Brothers, each of us has his own style and his own gifts.  I have discussed four tasks.  Some of us have a special aptitude for prayer, others are at their best when they are teaching and equipping, and still others have cultivated an especially articulate public voice.  

As St. Paul teaches, "the body does not consist of one member but of many."  As a body of bishops, each member's work, each committee's work, complements the others.  Our defense of religious freedom is meant to keep the dialogue going, to ensure the place of the Church in the conversation.  It is a task that is necessary if our Church is to carry out her mission with integrity.  And in promoting this first freedom, we hope to open the space for all people of faith to contribute to the healing of our deeply wounded country.

Thank you for your time today.  I will be happy to answer any questions that you may have for me. 

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