The U.S. bishops voted on Thursday to make their Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty a permanent committee of the national bishops’ conference.
“The very idea of religious freedom and its root in human nature is challenged" today, said Archbishop Lori, chair of the ad hoc committee, at a meeting of the U.S. bishops Thursday.
He added, “how important it is that we remain in the public square through advocacy" for the freedom of religious institutions to fight poverty, provide health care and education, serve immigrants, and protect human life.
In 2011, the ad hoc committee was formed for a period of three years, as the “bishops were deeply concerned about a broad trend" of threats to religious freedom on the local and national level, Archbishop Lori noted, speaking at the annual spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Indianapolis.
Pope Benedict XVI, in his address to U.S. bishops in January of 2012 during their “ad limina" visit, warned of “grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism" where there were “certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion."
“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," the Pope said. “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.
The U.S. bishops voted in 2014 to extend the committee for another three-year period. Then on Thursday, they voted to make the committee permanent by a vote of 132-53, with five bishops abstaining.
Most notably, the committee established the annual Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week campaign of prayer, penance, and advocacy for the Church’s continued freedom to serve in the public square, starting on June 21, the eve of the feasts of Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher, and ending on July 4, Independence Day.
One of the most notable threats the ad hoc committee warned of was the contraceptive mandate. The Department of Health and Human Services, interpreting the Affordable Care Act, had issued rules under the Obama administration that employer health plans had to cover sterilizations, contraceptives, and drugs that can cause abortions.
While churches and their immediate auxiliaries were exempt from the mandate, many religious institutions, including hospitals, universities, and charities, were not. Changes to the regulation offered by the Obama administration still violated the religious beliefs of the Catholic organizations, bishops and Church leaders contended.
In May, President Donald Trump promised regulatory relief from the mandate for religious non-profits like the Little Sisters of the Poor.
“The struggle against the HHS mandate is not over," Archbishop Lori warned on Thursday. “Victory is not assured."
The promised relief could change with another presidential administration who could again enforce the mandate against religious groups, the archbishop said.
And other threats to religious freedom persist, he said, like the legalization of same-sex marriage, which could pose problems for religious institutions that uphold the Church’s teaching on marriage.
The archbishop cited then-Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who admitted during oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states, that there could be an issue with the tax-exempt status of religious universities teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman, if same-sex marriage were the law of the land.
Some bishops voiced their strong support for the committee on Thursday, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who chaired the USCCB when the committee was formed, and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. The most recent president of the USCCB, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, also supported making the committee permanent.
The bishops of the world “look to us," Cardinal Dolan told his fellow bishops, “to be the real quarterbacks" in “defense of religious freedom."
A few bishops voiced objections to making the committee permanent in the discussions before the vote on Thursday.
Several were concerned about how it would appear to make the religious liberty committee permanent at the same time that the bishops’ working group on immigration, begun in November, finished its formal work.
However, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, vice president of the conference, clarified later on Thursday at an afternoon press conference that the working group “will continue," although Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston-Galveston, president of the conference who had begun the working group last November, had not specified a timeline for how long it would continue.
Furthermore, Archbishop Lori stressed, the conference already has a standing Committee on Migration. “The important thing is that as the sun sets, there’s a permanent committee in place, because we understand the questions of migration are permanent," he said.
Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt. also voiced concerns that funding for the religious freedom committee could eventually dry up, while Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark said that domestic religious freedom concerns “can be handled by the domestic policy committee," referring to the USCCB Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
“I am not convinced that there is a need at this time for it," he said of the religious freedom committee.
Bishop Francis Kalabat of the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle in Detroit strongly supported extending the committee, however.
There are “currently 60 million refugees in the world," he said. “What percentage of them came as a result of a lack of religious freedom?"
“Who you back up, or who backs you up, is who gives you the strength" in the Middle East, he said, noting that if the U.S. shows strong support for religious freedom, it also shows support for persecuted Christians elsewhere.
Religious freedom, Archbishop Lori stressed, covers “a wide spectrum of ministries, a wide spectrum of advocacy," and there is need for “some consistency for a clearing house and a clear voice."
“Religious liberty is a concept that really relates to one’s fundamental stance towards God," he said, “that first and primal relationship towards God." As Dignitatis Humanae states, he noted, religious freedom is “rooted in human nature" and “granted by God as a fundamental human endowment.
On Thursday, the bishops also voted to approve new guidelines for the celebration of the sacraments of persons with disabilities.
The new guidelines were said to pay deeper attention to allergy problems, for example the gluten intolerance or alcohol intolerance of a communicant. They encouraged parishes to be more aware and accommodating of persons with disabilities in the distribution of the sacraments.
Archbishop Kurtz tweeted on Thursday that the National Catholic Partners on Disability were “excited" about the revised guidelines.
By Matt Hadro