Ethics & Public Policy Center

After ‘United for Religious Freedom’

Published in National Review Online on March 19, 2012



On the night of February 17, I took a phone call from a senior Catholic official who was concerned about the pro-gay-marriage votes in the Washington and Maryland legislatures and the possible spillover effect of those defeats on the unity the U.S. bishops had thus far displayed in resisting the Health and Human Services contraceptive mandate. I told him not to worry. “The bishops of the United States,” I said, “haven’t been so unified since John Carroll took a deep breath in 1791 and decided something.”

In 1791, of course, Bishop Carroll of Baltimore was the only Catholic bishop in the young Republic.

This striking episcopal unity not only held during the March 13-14 meeting of the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it was strengthened. The vote to approve a statement entitled“United for Religious Freedom,” in which the bishops declared that there would be no compromise with the Obama administration on the mandate itself or on the bogus “accommodation” of religious concerns, was unanimous, with bishops from across the spectrum of responsible Catholic opinion joining together to lay down an unmistakable marker. Thus those who reported fissures opening within the bishops’ conference that would lead to a retreat from the rigor of the bishops’ challenge to the administration were decisively rebutted. So were those whose leaks to the press were obvious attempts to paint a picture of discord within the episcopate and to smear some of the bishops’ ablest staffers as rabid “culture warriors.” And so were those journalists who, foolishly, tried to intimidate bishops, who don’t take kindly to such blunt-edged tactics.

Full marks, then, to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for guiding the Administrative Committee to a unanimous and tough statement, navigating the rocks and shoals of some bishops’ concerns about the substance of the USCCB’s challenge to the administration (which touched on questions of the very nature of religious freedom) and other bishops’ concerns about tactics.

On the substance of the bishops’ challenge to the administration’s diktat, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut (whom Dolan had earlier named the chairman of an Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty), has been the key figure. Hewing closely to the Catholic theory of religious freedom laid down by the Second Vatican Council and Blessed John Paul II, Bishop Lori has insisted on the indivisibility of the first liberty. Religious freedom, in other words, has both personal and corporate dimensions; both individuals and institutions enjoy the right of religious freedom. Thus any attempt to solve practical problems, such as those which the mandate poses to Catholic institutions and to conscientious Catholic employers and employees, by splitting the difference (i.e., the bishops’ defending their institutions but leaving individual Catholics to fend for themselves against Leviathan) would not only be pastorally irresponsible; it would mean an abandonment of Catholic tradition. Lori’s thoughtful defense of the indivisibility of religious freedom in recent months, and during the Administrative Committee meeting, was one key in forging the unified and principled position the bishops took in “United for Religious Freedom.”

This was not without irony. Bishop Lori first became a vocal public advocate for religious freedom when Connecticut legislators, looking for payback after the Catholic Church had opposed a statewide gay-marriage statute, introduced a bill that would have so circumscribed the Church’s authority to control its own internal life that the Catholic Church in Connecticut would have become a de facto department of the state government. Lori led an exceptionally vigorous campaign against this attack and won the day. That crash course in the substantive and political defense of religious freedom has served Bishop Lori, and the entire Church in the United States, well, as Lori has moved onto a larger stage. So kudos to those Connecticut gay activists and their legislative allies who so overshot the mark in the Nutmeg State that the ricochet has reverberated around the country.

As to tactics, bishops who had taken a more benign view of the Obama administration these past three years had some concerns about the ways in which the conference’s leaders and staff had played their hand since the administration announced its “accommodation” of religious concerns on February 10. Many of these bishops are still committed to an older paradigm of engagement with public policy by the bishops’ conference, in which “staying in play” is the prime imperative. But the majority of the Administrative Committee seemed to think that Cardinal Dolan, Bishop Lori, and others had been admirable in their toughness and in their methods.

And when a Reuters story on the morning of March 13 quoted the ubiquitous Father Thomas Reese, S.J., as suggesting that “political reality” ought to trump Church teaching in the bishops’ deliberations, the consensus on the Administrative Committee hardened behind an unyielding statement that the administration’s “accommodation'” was unacceptable. That consensus was further strengthened by a New York Times poll released that day, which made clear to the bishops, if not to Father Reese, that the administration’s attempt to bludgeon the Church into submission had backfired: Americans across the country’s religious, political, and gender divides rejected the administration’s attempt to force religious institutions to act against their conscientious convictions.

Further, Father Reese was not the only Catholic on the Church’s port side who misfired in the immediate run-up to the Administrative Committee meeting. E. J. Dionne Jr.’s, March 12 Washington Post columndid not have the intended intimidating effect on the bishops; precisely the opposite, in fact. Dionne’s attack on the enormously popular Cardinal Dolan was one miscue. Perhaps even more clumsy was his attack on Dolan’s predecessor as USCCB president, Cardinal Francis George, O.M.I., of Chicago. More than a few bishops did not appreciate Dionne’s suggestion that the scholarly Chicago archbishop was a latter-day Joe McCarthy waving the bloody shirt of anti-leftist hysteria at the Obama White House, when all Cardinal George had done was describe accurately the landscape that an implemented HHS mandate would leave behind: a country without Catholic health-care facilities, which serve one-sixth of the nation’s patients every year.

As for next steps, the Lori committee on religious liberty will shortly issue a comprehensive statement on the nature of religious freedom and the many ways in which the first liberty is under assault; the Obama administration will not be the only target here — not for the sake of “balance,” but for the sake of the facts. That statement, it is hoped, will be widely circulated in American parishes and will provide substantive material for discussion of the religious-freedom issue in Catholic churches and schools throughout the country.

As for attempts to find a remedy to the threat posed by the HHS mandate, “United for Religious Freedom” pledged the bishops to engage in a serious dialogue with the administration on the unacceptability of both the mandate and the faux “accommodation.” But the bishops are not fools; they understand, as the administration made clear in HHS’s March 16 “Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (ANPRM), that the White House will try to drag this out as long as possible, convinced that its “war on women” mantra is an electoral winner; and the leadership of the bishops’ conference does not intend to play the
role the administration has assigned it in this cynical game. “Staying in play” is no longer the prime imperative. So it should be no surprise if, after further attempts at “dialogue” with a White House that has already said that the bishops’ principal concerns are not on the table, the USCCB makes clear that it will no longer participate in a charade that served one side’s political purposes.

The USCCB will continue to support the Fortenberry bill in the House, passage of which would help nail down the point that the Senate vote against the Blunt amendment (which would have restored the religious freedoms embedded in Hillarycare) does not represent anything like a national consensus. But whatever Father Reese’s judgment of the bishops’ political smarts, they know quite well what the Fortenberry bill’s fate will be when it is sent across the Capitol to the black hole presided over by Harry Reid. So the quite realistic leaders of the bishops’ conference know that the winning strategy here involves the federal courts, where they can be expected to have the backing of world-class legal talent.

“United for Religious Freedom” is an important statement on an issue of first principles, and a robust defense of the prerogatives of civil society. As such, it is a service to the entire country. As for the future of the Catholic Church in the United States, the past several months have underscored the incoherence into which progressive Catholicism has fallen: an intellectual incoherence that now seems to have been wedded to political ineptness. The Catholic Lite Brigade saddled up and rode to the sounds of the cannonading, in the days before the USCCB Administrative Committee meeting; and it suffered the same fate as a nobler Light Brigade did at Balaclava in 1854.

Prior to the Administrative Committee meeting, Michael Sean Winters, who plays the role of Bukharin at the onlineNational Catholic Reporter intelligently and with brioand who had been a sharp critic of the HHS mandate in the early going, advised Cardinal Dolan to be like the great Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore (leader of Catholicism in America from the late 19th through the early 20th century) and take the “long view,” the implication being that the bishops’ rigorous criticism of the mandate/”accommodation” had been rather myopic. I would suggest that Dolan (who knows the Gibbons legacy well) is doing precisely that. In standing fast on first principles, he is helping guide the Church through the greatest assault on religious freedom since the Blaine Amendments, and he is doing so against a temporal horizon far longer than that set by election cycles.

Should the Obama administration’s attempt to dumb religious freedom down win the day, the Catholic Church — and indeed every religious community that challenges the hegemony of the sexual revolution and its ally, the Leviathan state — is in very serious trouble, in the short term and over the long haul. If, on the other hand, the bishops and their allies across the religious and political spectrums succeed, they will not only have done the country a great service, they will have set the legal foundations for a robustly evangelical Catholicism far into the future: a Catholicism that, as Winters puts it, will make its contribution toward “a culture of life that will better reflect our highest ideals as both Catholics and Americans than the culture we have today.”

Advancing that noble goal, however, means speaking truth to power, which is precisely what the USCCB Administrative Committee did in “United for Religious Freedom” — and precisely what the bishops’ conference will continue to do as this drama unfolds.

- George Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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