May 26, 2017

Archbishop Lori addresses current misperceptions about religious liberty, encourages faithful to be advocates

By Sean Gallagher

Second of two parts (see part one here)

Archbishop William E. LoriThe U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will meet from June 14-15 in Indianapolis for its annual spring general assembly.

One of the questions that the bishops will consider will be to make its Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty a permanent committee.

Archbishop William E. Lori has led the committee since it was established in 2011. During that time, he has often been a public advocate on various political issues affecting religious liberty.

But he noted in the first of a two‑part interview with The Criterion last week that the more foundational work of the committee is “winning people’s minds and hearts for their faith,” something that he said will lead to people demanding that the government do a better job of respecting religious liberty.

In part two of the interview, Archbishop Lori, who was raised in New Albany, Ind., reflects on misperceptions in the broader culture and among some Catholics about religious liberty and advocacy for it, and the relationship between the struggle for religious freedom in the U.S. and in other countries around the world.

He also gives practical advice to Catholics on how they can learn more about religious liberty and become advocates for it.

The following is an edited version of that interview.

Q. There are many Catholics who think that the Church’s attention on religious liberty is either misplaced or overstated. And others among the faithful go so far as to agree with the view of many in the broader culture that the talk of religious liberty is just scant cover for bigotry.

What case would you make for the Church’s advocacy for religious liberty in our society to the faithful who hold such views?

A. “First of all, I think that, among church-going Catholics, those who are in the pews with regularity, the Church’s defense of religious liberty pretty much makes sense to them.

“Secondly, there is a need to understand more clearly what the Second Vatican Council taught about religious liberty. It’s not simply freedom of worship, but it’s a freedom to order your whole life and your professional life as well around your faith and your convictions. And it’s also the freedom of Church institutions to follow the teaching of the Church.

“If you think that the teachings of the Church are good, life-giving, truthful and beautiful, you will also think that they are very good for society, not just for the Church.

“Our point in successive Fortnights for Freedom has been that we are seeking not some privilege for the Church, but rather, we are seeking only the freedom to serve and to serve according to our conviction. It is, after all, our faith, our understanding of the human person, our grasp of human dignity that makes us do works of charity, social services and education.

“And it is precisely those services that have been constrained by government policies, court decisions and laws in the last number of years.

“I’d also make this observation. I can understand why people might think that our struggle for religious freedom has all been overblown because there are no cataclysmic events going on. Nobody’s getting arrested. Nothing’s getting shut down.

“But what we have been seeing is a kind of steady erosion of religious freedom. And it’s a little hard to point this out to people that it’s eroding. But if you own beachfront property, over time you can observe the effects of erosion. And, pretty soon, you’re going to say to yourself, ‘You know what? I think I’d better put up a seawall.’

“That’s kind of where we got to a number of years ago. And I think that’s where we still are. We want to make sure that we preserve and defend our freedom, not because we want privileges, but because this is part of who we are as people. And it also unlocks for the Church the ability to serve according to our own lights, recognizing that other people are going to provide similar goods and services very differently.

“We should be able to have that kind of legitimate diversity in a democracy. That’s also what freedom is all about.”

Q. An added challenge to getting that message across would be the fact that there clearly are places in the world today where people are losing their lives because of their faith. What’s happening here isn’t like what’s happening in Syria or Egypt. So why should we be up in arms about it?

A. “First of all, the Church in the United States is doing a tremendous amount of good in those places. I think of what Catholic Relief Services, Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus are doing.

“But we do no favors to the persecuted people in the Middle East, Africa or elsewhere by frittering away our religious freedom. We are more in solidarity with them when we keep that torch burning brightly than if we allow it to grow dim or, God help us, some day to become extinguished.

“We already see in our culture as well major attacks on freedom of speech. They’re not necessarily coming from the government. They’re coming from various kinds of pressure groups, especially on college campuses. We could easily see the same thing happen to religious freedom.

“That’s not going to help people who are dying for their faith in the Middle East if we engage in that kind of behavior.

“So, we have a twofold job. One, to protect and preserve religious freedom in our country in solidarity with those who are suffering. And then, secondly, provide them aid and assistance as they suffer so dreadfully. Our eye is always on those who are overseas suffering persecution and genocide.”

Q. Do you have either any practical or spiritual advice to Catholics to continue advancing the cause of religious liberty at this particular time when people might think that we have an administration that’s more friendly toward religious freedom, and they don’t feel that they have to do as much?

A. “There is no room for complacency. We have a lot of work to do.

“And we need to continue to pursue that work in a very determined fashion—civilly, politely, but in a very determined way.

“One of the reasons that we always have the Fortnight for Freedom, which takes place from June 21 to July 4, is to give people an opportunity to study about religious freedom in general, to study the issues and be updated, and to pray for religious liberty at home and abroad.

“This year, our theme is ‘freedom for mission.’ It’s the freedom to do the full mission of the Church, which is handing on the faith, celebrating the sacraments and serving those in need. They’re all linked together.

“There are many, many resources on the USCCB website [] for religious freedom, praying about it and understanding it. I would urge people to go there.

(Click here to read part one of this interview with Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori)

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