May 19, 2017

Archbishop Lori says religious liberty executive order is good step

By Sean Gallagher

First of two parts

Archbishop William E. LoriFor years, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore has been the point man for the U.S. bishops on religious freedom, serving as the chairman of their Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.

In this position, he has had a high public profile, testifying before congressional committees and leading the effort of the Church in the U.S. to promote its annual Fortnight for Freedom, a period of education, advocacy and prayer about religious liberty from June 21-July 4.

Even though President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order promoting religious freedom in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House on May 4, Archbishop Lori is not relaxing in his advocacy. And he wants all Catholics in the U.S. to remain vigilant as well.

The New Albany native spoke about the executive order and popular perceptions—and misperceptions—about religious liberty in a recent interview with The Criterion that took place days after the executive order signing ceremony.

The following is an edited version of that interview.
 

Q. Overall, how do you view the significance of the religious freedom executive order that was signed by President Trump?

A. “It is, in general, a step in the right direction. First of all, there is a general commitment on the part of the administration to support religious freedom. Secondly, it re-opened the regulatory process to address the HHS mandate. It gave the Department of Health and Human Services some broad authority to reshape the HHS mandate and other onerous regulations in a way that is more respectful of religious freedom.

“That’s not the end of the process. It’s the beginning of the process. And it will be very important for us to work with [HHS] Secretary [Thomas] Price and his team, hopefully to come out not with another accommodation—we’ve had many of those that did not really address the religious freedom concerns adequately—but rather to come out with a full-fledged exemption from having to insure for services that are contrary to Church teaching.

“He opened up a process. It addresses some of our concerns. But it obviously does not address all of our concerns.”
 

Q. A good portion of the executive order was focused on the Johnson Amendment. How would you explain the principle that the Catholic Church espouses in not endorsing or condemning specific political candidates or parties, which is the subject of the Johnson Amendment?

A. “The Church has always taught that it is primarily the role of the laity to work for a just and tranquil order. And it is primarily for the clergy to teach and sanctify.

“So, our job is really to shed the light of Christian moral teaching and social teaching on the issues of the day. It’s not to tell people how to vote or what party they ought to belong to. That’s really not our role as clergy.

“Furthermore, for a pastor or a priest to take a side politically is very divisive for a congregation. It really goes against the fundamental job of a pastor or a priest, which is to evangelize, to gather people in unity, recognizing that there will be legitimate differences and, nonetheless, bringing people together around the person of Christ and the Gospel. That’s really our job.”
 

Q. Are there any currently contested aspects of religious liberty that you wish would have been addressed in the executive order?

A. “My view is that we need to keep looking forward. So, I think about the work of Migration and Refugee Services, an excellent agency sponsored by the [U.S. bishops] that follows Church teaching in addressing the very real issues that come up in migrant and refugee families.

“It’s always been highly rated, but it was denied a contract [to serve victims of human trafficking] with the federal government pretty much on the basis of its adherence to the Church’s teaching on life and on the family. And in that, I think that the agency was discriminated against. I would certainly like to see that addressed.

“I would also note that in California and New York, there is something of an abortion mandate. It goes to show you that when there’s a contraceptive mandate, that’s the prelude to an abortion mandate. It has no religious exemption. It assumes that abortion is just part of ordinary care and would require all institutions to insure for abortion and some institutions to perform abortions that would have conscientious objections.

“There is legislation underway at the federal level that would address that. It’s called the Conscience Protection Act.

“It passed the House of Representatives last year, but had no chance of going anywhere else. We think it may have a better chance this year.

“We still have challenges regarding licensure and accreditation. But the big challenge, the great challenge is that of winning people’s minds and hearts for their faith. Once they practice their faith, they love their religious freedom. And once they love their religious freedom, they expect more from their government in defending it.”
 

Q. Even if there wasn’t as much in the executive order as some advocates of religious liberty would have wished, the ceremony at which it was signed was certainly striking in the president praising the Little Sisters of the Poor and bringing them on stage. What was your impression when you saw that?

A. “It was a very good start, and we should be grateful for [him] taking an important step in the right direction. I think that’s how the Little Sisters understood it, and I think their presence there really communicated that sentiment.

“I would also say that the Little Sisters have really been the face of this struggle for us. That’s because they engage in a wonderful work of love and mercy in caring for the poor and the elderly.

“And they simply want to do this as religious women who follow the teachings of the Church and whose adherence to the life of faith and the moral teachings of the Church prompted them to begin this work in the 19th century. It prompted them to become religious and to give their lives for this.

“They really exemplify what this struggle has been about in a most beautiful way.

“It should also be said that the Church does not agree with the administration on everything, including immigration issues. I think we have respectfully but, again, clearly made our concerns known.

“That, in and of itself, is an exercise of religious liberty. The Church is not going to find itself necessarily lining up with one side of the aisle or the other. That’s part of the glory of religious freedom.

“A religious body like the Catholic Church is not beholden to any one political agenda, but rather has the freedom to shed light on issues according to reason and faith.”
 

(Part two of this interview will be published in the May 26 issue of The Criterion. In it, Archbishop Lori reflects on popular perceptions and misperceptions about religious liberty and offers advice for Catholics in religious freedom advocacy.)

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