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Envisioning Religious Liberty


Bishop William E. Lori, Supreme Chaplain

Bishop William E. Lori

In a homily on the Book of Ezekiel, St. Gregory the Great comments on a passage in which the Lord says, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel” (33:7). Gregory explains, “A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming. Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height, for all his life, to help them by his foresight.”

The lenses of Church teaching and the Founding Fathers' vision equip us to search both law and culture to see whether they respect religious freedom as an individual right that is inscribed by the Creator.

The saintly pontiff compared his ministry to that of a watchman, and so, too, are we bishops called to be vigilant heralds of the Word and overseers of the household of God. For some time now, we have viewed with growing alarm the erosion of religious liberty in the United States. During the bishops’ plenary meeting in November 2010, we decided to make the defense of religious liberty a priority and embraced our responsibility to address threats to this precious freedom head on.

In consultation with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Administrative Committee, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York established an Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. The committee is now comprised of 10 bishops, assisted by consultants, an associate general secretary, a lawyer and a lobbyist. In addition, the committee relies on the collaboration of an extraordinary number of bishops and the expertise of the USCCB staff.

As the committee begins its important work, we must consider several questions: How do we, as pastors and citizens, bring into focus our teachings on religious liberty? What should we be looking for and what do we see? And how should we respond?


The Second Vatican Council called upon Catholics “to read the signs of the times,” and as Americans, we do so as if through binoculars equipped with two lenses. First is the lens of the Church’s teaching on human dignity and religious liberty — a dignity and freedom inscribed on the human heart and revealed fully in Christ. Second is the lens of the heritage bequeathed by the Founding Fathers: a bold Declaration of Independence that recognizes that all people are “endowed by their Creator” with inherent human rights, and a Constitution and Bill of Rights that accord a certain primacy to our freedom to respond to our Creator without undue government interference.

It takes much work to keep these binoculars in focus, to maintain a critical and accurate understanding of how the Founding Fathers’ vision and Church teaching fit together. As historians know so well, the relationship between the Church and the American experiment came into focus only gradually and is always in need of careful refocusing. Nonetheless, both lenses, when allowed to function as intended, offer a remarkably clear vision of human dignity and freedom.

This vision includes an understanding that basic human freedoms are inherent to human dignity and that our freedoms are granted not by the state, but are given to us by our Creator. As President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, the rights for which our forebears fought “come not from the generosity of the state, but rather from the hand of God.” Likewise, the Church teaches that “the ultimate source of human rights is not found in the mere will of human beings, … but in man himself, and in God his Creator” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 153).

Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, addresses the U.S. bishops at their annual fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 14, 2011. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

If religious liberty is prior to the state and not a privilege granted by the government, then we rightfully look to our government to fulfill its duty to protect religious liberty, promote religious tolerance and accommodate the place of religion in American life. We expect our government not to allow religious liberty to be easily compromised by other claims and interests.

Our vision is sharpened by the wisdom of George Washington, who saw the importance of morality and religion as “indispensable supports” for “political prosperity.” Thus, we rightfully envision the Church as an actor in society, forming not only believers, but also citizens equipped to build a civilization of truth and love. We seek protection by law and acceptance in our culture of intermediate institutions such as the family, churches and schools, which stand between the power of the government and the conscience of individuals, all the while contributing immensely to the common good.

The lenses of Church teaching and the Founding Fathers’ vision equip us to search both law and culture to see whether they respect religious freedom as an individual right that is inscribed by the Creator, regardless of current moral or political trends. The Second Vatican Council teaches, “The exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary, and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God” and thus no one should “be forced to act in a manner contrary to [his or her] conscience” (Dignitatis Humanae, 3).

While recognizing religious freedom as an individual right, we see that it belongs also to churches and religious institutions comprised of citizens who are believers. And as believers, we do not seek to create a theocracy, but rather to be a leaven and light within our culture. Our government should extend to all faiths a robust understanding of religious freedom, one that envisions the importance of being able not only to worship freely, but also to bring into the public square truths and values that flow from faith and reason, expressed in works of education, health care, social services and charity.

In short, religious liberty pertains to the whole person — it is not simply the freedom to believe and to worship, but to shape our very lives around those beliefs and that worship — both as individuals and as a community — and to share our lives, thus transformed, with the world. As watchmen, we need to see whether or not this fundamental liberty continues to live in the hearts of our fellow Catholics and citizens.


What is it that we actually see through the dual lenses of Catholic social teaching and founding American principles? We see a Church that, for all her challenges, serves the common good with extraordinary effectiveness and generosity.

In the dioceses that we serve, the Church is the largest non-governmental source of educational, social, charitable and health care services, offered as an integral part of our mission and an expression of our faith in the God who is love. In a time of economic hardship, the services that the Catholic Church and other Christian communities offer are crucial.

But it is becoming more and more difficult for the Church to deliver services in a manner that respects the very faith that impels her members.

Among these challenges is a pattern in culture and law that treats religion as merely a private matter between an individual and his or her God. Instead of promoting tolerance for different religious views that contribute to the nation’s common morality, certain laws, court decisions and administrative regulations treat religion as a divisive and disruptive force better kept out of public life. Some invoke the so-called doctrine of separation of church and state to exclude the Church from public policy, thus ignoring the historic role of churches in ending slavery, securing civil rights, and promoting just labor practices.

Although religion is personal, it is not private, for there is no religious liberty if we are not free to publicly express our faith. Likewise, there is no freedom of speech if one is free to say what he or she believes only privately, but not publicly through the media, arts, libraries and schools.

We also see that the reach of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” — is being expanded so as to continually narrow the protections offered by the Free Exercise Clause — “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — thus turning the First Amendment on its head.

The Establishment Clause was meant to protect the Free Exercise Clause, not the other way around. The result has been that both individual citizens with strong religious convictions and religious institutions are less broadly accommodated and even marginalized on the grounds that any minimal accommodation somehow constitutes the “establishment” of particular religions in our land.

The USCCB has been defending against an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit involving the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recently abandoned policy that allowed the Church to serve trafficking victims without also providing them with abortions and contraception. The lawsuit claims that the policy, which respected our freedom of religious exercise, actually violated the Establishment Clause.

But make no mistake: Aggressive secularism is also a system of belief. In failing to accommodate people of faith and religious institutions, both law and culture are establishing un-religion as the religion of the land and granting it the rights and protections that our Founding Fathers envisioned for citizens who are believers and their churches. In addition, the barriers preventing government from interfering in the internal life of religious groups have been lowered over time.

This aids the erosion of religious liberty by the imposition of court-mandated “rights” that have no textual basis in the Constitution, such as those that pertain to abortion and same-sex marriage. Refusal to endorse the taking of innocent human life or to redefine marriage is now portrayed as discriminatory. As a result, the freedom of religious entities to provide services according to their own beliefs, to defend publicly their teachings, and even to choose and manage their own personnel is coming under increased attack.

This and more have led to dramatic and immediate threats to religious liberty across our land. Consider an Alabama law and court ruling that criminalized the “good Samaritan” services that religious entities provide to the undocumented; a county clerk in New York State who faces legal action because she refuses to take part in same-sex marriages; the 2009 attempt of members of the Judiciary Committee in Connecticut to reorganize parishes in a manner utterly opposed to Catholic teaching and law; and the sad reality that many diocesan Catholic Charities have had to withdraw from adoption and foster care services because of their fidelity to the Church’s teaching on marriage.

Some federal agencies, absent legislative and judicial oversight, also threaten religious freedom. HHS issued regulations that would mandate coverage of sterilization and contraception, including abortifacients, in all private health care plans. The religious exemption was far too narrow, requiring Catholic employers to hire mainly Catholics, serve mainly Catholics and exist mainly to inculcate religious values in order to qualify.

Though there is a real possibility of a broader exemption, it remains to be seen whether it will protect all religious organizations or the conscience rights of individuals and insurers.

Contrary to conscience protections that are already a matter of law, Catholic Relief Services and Migration Refugee Services were told that a new condition for the renewal of cooperative agreements was the provision of offering a full-range of so-called reproductive services, a condition we hope may soon be dropped.

The U.S. Department of Justice has created additional problems. It has attacked the Defense of Marriage Act as motivated by “bias and prejudice,” akin to racism, thereby implying that churches that teach that marriage is between a man and a woman are guilty of bigotry.

The Department of Justice has also argued before the Supreme Court for the virtual elimination of the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” which protects the freedom of religious denominations to choose their own ministers without state interference.


To respond to these and other threats immediately on the horizon, the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty has begun its work to help dioceses defend and promote religious liberty. As bishops, our first duty and instinct is to teach, and so, among other things, the committee will provide multimedia resources to help educate the faithful about religious liberty issues.

As pastors, we recognize that we have a critical role to play in leading our people in prayer and in instructing and inspiring them, so that they will cherish their God-given freedoms and work to shape a society marked by respect for the transcendent dignity and freedom of each human being.

And as watchmen, we will continue to flag threats to religious liberty and to speak out against them, to engage public officials, whether elected or appointed, not in a partisan fashion, but in a manner entirely consistent with the deepest values of our democracy.

But this we cannot do alone. We need to involve our closest co-workers, our priests, who are on the front lines of parish life and who enjoy the respect and esteem of their parishioners. Their voices will be vital in the struggle that stands before us. We must also call forth the laymen and women of the Church to put their gifts and expertise on the line in defense of religious liberty, and we must join with our ecumenical and interreligious partners.

It is not a question of creating new structures or new bureaucracies, but of utilizing what is already in place — parishes, schools, communications networks — so as to refocus and re-energize the people we serve. I hope that the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty will be of greatest service to all dioceses in our role as teachers, as pastors, as lovers of truth and freedom — as watchmen. Together, we will do our best to awaken in ourselves, in our fellow Catholics and in the culture at large a new appreciation for religious liberty and a renewed determination to defend it.


BISHOP WILLIAM E. LORI of Bridgeport, Conn., was named chairman of the U.S. bishops’ new Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty in September 2011. The text of this article was adapted from a speech Bishop Lori gave during the plenary USCCB meeting in November.