'Intensifying' religious freedom threats show need to evangelize

Archbishop William E Lori takes part in a press conference at the USCCBs Fall General Assembly in Baltimore on Nov 11 2013 Credit Addie Mena CNA CNA 11 11 13 Archbishop William E. Lori takes part in a press conference at the USCCB's Fall General Assembly in Baltimore on Nov. 11, 2013. / Addie Mena/CNA.

In the face of growing restrictions on religious expression, Catholics must be able to explain the place of religious liberty in public life, said Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore.

"We need to evangelize," he emphasized in a Nov. 11 interview with CNA.

He explained that the broader culture is not paying attention to many of the religious restrictions being enacted in the United States.

"This is part of the new evangelization, and we need to talk neighbor-to-neighbor to those who do not yet understand or see the threats to religious liberty," he said.

Archbishop Lori chairs the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. In recent months, the bishops have voiced mounting religious liberty concerns in a variety of areas, including service to immigrants and a cultural push to redefine marriage.

Health care has also been a major realm of concern for the bishops and other religious liberty advocates, as pressure increases on Catholic health care workers and systems to perform abortions and dispense contraception against their beliefs.

"Catholic Healthcare provides a tremendous witness," Archbishop Lori emphasized. "It is the continuation of Jesus's healing ministry. It has always been exceptionally generous to the poor and the needy."

However, due to an increasing secularist influence, "there is a growing tendency to treat all hospitals, including faith-based hospitals, simply as public institutions and as quasi-governmental institutions, and therefore to say they cannot harbor any particular religious convictions," he warned.

He described restrictions such as the federal contraception mandate as "a subset of that" trend.

The controversial mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance plans covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions, has been widely criticized as violating the religious freedom of those who have moral objections to it.

More than 200 plaintiffs across the country have filed religious liberty lawsuits against the mandate. On Nov. 26, the Supreme Court announced that it would hear two cases from for-profit cases challenging the regulation. A ruling is expected in the cases next summer.

At their fall general assembly earlier this month, the U.S. bishops issued a statement voicing their unanimous opposition to the mandate and support for efforts to defend religious freedom.

Archbishop Lori noted that other challenges to religious liberty have begun emerging "at all levels of government," and these "challenges are, if anything, intensifying."

Many federal rules, state laws and city ordinances have good intentions, he explained, but they result in the often unintended restriction of religious expression. 

In addition, political discourse in much of society has shifted towards the views of "secularists who really want to exclude religion and religious values" from American life.

These challenges can be difficult to address, Archbishop Lori said, because many of the threats and restrictions are "just under the radar screen," and consequently, "most people don't pay too much attention to them."

Efforts to educated American Catholics of these troubling trends have resulted in a "much greater consciousness of the need to promote and defend religious liberty," as well as "more attention to what the church teaches, and more attention to our heritage as Americans," he said.

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However, he continued, the greater public needs to be aware of the threats facing religious activity and expression. 

"There's got to be a lot of neighbor-to-neighbor explaining," the archbishop stressed. 

In addition, he said, Catholics should strive to "be really great citizens, and that means participating very actively in the political process and making their voice heard."

"When our elected officials hear from us and realize that a lot of people are paying attention, it really makes a difference."

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