.- Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore believes that Pope Benedict's praise for the Knights of Columbus' efforts to defend religious freedom shows that the issue is broader than the confines of American politics.
The Pope's recent letter affirming the Knights, Archbishop Lori added, puts to rest suggestions that the group's religious liberty efforts have right-wing affiliations.
“This letter from the Holy Father is exceedingly important,” Archbishop Lori told CNA in an exclusive Aug. 6 interview.
“Not only does it confirm what the Knights of Columbus has been doing, it also lends encouragement to the bishops' efforts and religious freedom.”
“The Holy Father has taught clearly, and expresses it clearly in the letter, that religious liberty is not just one of many freedoms,” he underscored, “but it is as fundamental as the right to life itself.”
In a July 19 message signed by the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Pope Benedict commended the Knights' work at a time “when concerted efforts are being made to redefine and restrict the exercise of the right to religious freedom.”
The Pope made his remarks before the Knights' annual assembly, held this year in Anaheim, Calif., from Aug. 6-9.
Archbishop Lori – who chairs the U.S. bishops' religious freedom committee and has served as the Knights' Supreme Chaplain since 2005 – said he thinks the pontiff is aware that religious freedom issues “would very much be a focus of our convention as we begin in these days.”
“Religious liberty touches man at his root, in his relation to his Creator. And so, the right to life and religious liberty are two sides to one coin,” Archbishop Lori said.
“And I believe the Holy Father is making that abundantly clear, that the defense of religious liberty has to be a primary focus.”
With more than 1.8 million members, the Knights of Columbus is the world's largest fraternal group and among the nation’s most active charitable organizations. Last year, the Knights donated more than $158 million and 70 million volunteer hours to various humanitarian causes.
In recent months, the group has been an outspoken opponent of measures that threaten religious freedom – most notably a federal mandate that requires employers to offer health insurance that includes contraception, sterilization and early abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.
Each of the Knights' state councils passed a resolution supporting religious freedom, and Supreme Knight Carl Anderson has publicly opposed the mandate as well as other threats to religious liberty.
However, at a June 13 press conference at the U.S. bishops' spring meeting in Atlanta, Archbishop Lori was questioned by Jerry Filteau of the National Catholic Reporter about funding for the bishops' campaign to defend religious liberty.
Filteau said that he had heard “rumors” that much of the funding for the bishops' effort is coming from the Knights, whose head, Anderson, is a former Reagan administration official.
He suggested that there may be “a partisanship aspect to the whole thing.”
In response, Archbishop Lori called the idea an “injustice” and urged those in attendance to think “of what the Knights of Columbus does for the Catholic Church and for many other humanitarian causes.”
“It is not in any way partisan, either in its spirit or in its funding,” he said.
Speaking to CNA on Aug. 6, Archbishop Lori observed that by his support for the Knights, the Pope himself has reaffirmed that the issue of defending religious liberty goes “beyond partisan confines.”
Through his letter, Pope Benedict “clarifies that whether one is a Democrat or Republican or an Independent, one ought to be working diligently to defend religious liberty.”
“Because, if religious liberty is compromised or violated, then a very unjust society emerges and that is not in anyone's interest of any party or of any political stripe,” the archbishop said.
Ultimately, he noted, the Pope's strong encouragement of the group “strengthens our resolve to continue fighting this battle which is not only legal and administrative, but also cultural and moral.”