“This is a big moment for Catholic voters to step back from their party affiliation,” Baltimore archbishop William E. Lori tells me from the Knights of Columbus annual convention in Anaheim, Calif.For Catholic voters in November, Lori advises, “The question to ask is this: Are any of the candidates of either party, or independents, standing for something that is intrinsically evil, evil no matter what the circumstances? If that’s the case, a Catholic, regardless of his party affiliation, shouldn’t be voting for such a person.”
At the convention this week, the message wasn’t just coming from Lori, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ new committee on religious liberty, but also from a letter conveying greetings from Pope Benedict XVI, commending the Knights and their work, specifically in defense of religious liberty. The Knights have been known to get papal encouragement, but this implicit comment on a contentious political issue is not part of the routine, reflecting what the letter calls the “unprecedented gravity” of the current situation.
“At a time when concerted efforts are being made to redefine and restrict the exercise of the right to religious freedom, the Knights of Columbus have worked tirelessly to help the Catholic community recognize and respond to the unprecedented gravity of these new threats to the Church’s liberty and public moral witness,” Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone wrote in the letter to the Knights, the largest lay Catholic organization in the United States, no doubt referring to the fight over the HHS contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing-drug mandate that has Catholic diocese, universities, and even businessmen suing the federal government to protect their religious-liberty rights. Cardinal Bertone continued: “By defending the right of all religious believers, as individual citizens and in their institutions, to work responsibly in shaping a democratic society inspired by their deepest beliefs, values and aspirations, your Order has proudly lived up to the high religious and patriotic principles which inspired its founding.”
“The challenges of the present moment are in fact yet another reminder of the decisive importance of the Catholic laity for the advancement of the Church’s mission in today’s rapidly changing social context,” the letter continues.
Citing papal comments to the bishops from the United States in Rome in January, the letter went on: “As he stated to the Bishops of the United States earlier this year, the demands of the new evangelization and the defense of the Church’s freedom in our day call for ‘an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-a-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society’ (Ad Limina Address, 19 January 2012).”
“Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion,” the pope also said in that January address. “Many of you have pointed out that concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices. Others have spoken to me of a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”
“Is it consistent to profess our beliefs in church on Sunday, and then during the week to promote business practices or medical procedures contrary to those beliefs?” the pope, perhaps prophetically, asked during his 2008 visit to Washington, D.C.
That this papal message would be sent this month to a lay organization, in particular, is “very significant,” Archbishop Lori emphasizes. “If we are going to transform the culture from within, which we are called to do, and defend our basic freedoms,” it will be primarily the role of the laity, Lori tells me.
“The bishops are teachers,” he said, but political leadership “really needs to come from the laity as citizens and mothers and fathers and voters.”
When it comes to election advice for Catholics: “The reality is we are defending something that transcends party. The defense of religious liberty,” he said, “should not be a Democratic or Republican issue.” For a Catholic voter, this should be “fundamental, as people of faith.”
And not just for Catholics: “Many in the media have portrayed the HHS-mandate fight as a fight about contraception — as well as sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs . . . but this really is a fight about religious liberty,” Archbishop Lori says. “And you can see that as Evangelicals, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews have joined us in defense. They realize if the government can do this to the Catholic Church, they could be forced to violate their consciences too. The Evangelicals include those at Wheaton College, which recently joined a lawsuit that the Catholic University of America had filed in opposition to the mandate, over [its] abortion-inducing drug aspect.”
In an interview last month, Philip Ryken, the president of Wheaton College, told me that “even if the HHS mandate had no effect on Evangelical institutions, it would still be important to me to be supportive of Roman Catholic institutions if there were invitations and opportunities to be supportive.” He echoed the immediate reaction of New York’s archbishop and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Timothy Cardinal Dolan, to the so-called accommodation that the president misleadingly touted this Wednesday afternoon in Denver, after being introduced by feminist superstar Sandra Fluke. “The most disturbing thing to me,” explains Ryken, who was a Presbyterian pastor in Philadelphia before becoming president of Wheaton, “was the government’s provision of a ‘safe harbor’ that would defer for one year the implementation of the mandate — and presenting that as somehow being a reasonable accommodation of religious liberty. I found that offensive — the hope that we would change our religious convictions over the course of the intervening year, or that religious convictions had somehow been honored if you violated them later rather than sooner.” “It was clear to me,” Ryken adds, “that there was no understanding of the true nature of religious liberty in the administration.”
“Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. This shouldn’t happen in a land where free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights,” now Cardinal Dolan said.
Cardinal Dolan joined the papal greeting in Anaheim, encouraging the continued witness of laity in the defense of religious liberty. Alongside him was the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, who said: “Our call at this moment is to affirm the right of religion to be active in the public square . . . to defend the freedom of people of faith and of religious institutions to act in accordance with their beliefs and nature; to maintain healthy church state relations; to understand conscience correctly and to form it according to objective truth; and to protect the right to conscientious objection. Believers are summoned now to stand up for their faith, even if they must suffer for doing so.”
Asked about the controversy brewing over an invitation extended by Cardinal Dolan to President Obama to speak, alongside Governor Mitt Romney, at the annual Alfred E. Smith Foundation dinner, a fundraiser for charities in New York, Archbishop Lori urged Catholics and other concerned citizens to “keep our eyes on the ball.” The invitation, and his presence, “do not constitute an endorsement,” Archbishop Lori tells me. But he was ready to make an endorsement himself: “I don’t think there is a clearer voice in the United States about the sanctity of life and religious liberty than Cardinal Dolan . . . [he's] a very clear, clarion voice. . . . Don’t get distracted.”