Another recent example of "soft despotism" in American life Wenski highlighted is the case of Jack Denton, former president of the Florida State University student senate and a rising senior at the school.
Denton expressed concerns about some policy positions of the groups BlackLivesMatter.com, the ACLU, and Reclaim the Block in a messaging forum of the university's Catholic student union.
He noted that the BlackLivesMatter.com "fosters 'a queer-affirming network' and defends transgenderism," while the ACLU "defends laws protecting abortion facilities." Reclaim the Block, Denton said, "claims less police will make our communities safer" and supports budget cuts to police departments. These positions, he said, are "things that are explicitly anti-Catholic."
Another member of the forum sent screenshots of Denton's statements to members of the student senate, who ultimately voted to remove him as head after a Change.org petition received thousands of signatures calling for his removal, accusing him of making "transphobic and racist remarks."
Denton said he did not make the statements in his official capacity as student senate president and he was simply posting "defenses of, basically, Catholic moral teachings," Wenski said, yet "that was a step too far for many of these new Jacobins we see around."
Such events are "becoming more common than remarkable, unfortunately," the archbishop said, noting that Catholics are increasingly becoming ostracized, ridiculed, or even denied jobs because of their religious beliefs.
One religious freedom case that the Supreme Court has yet to decide is that of the Little Sisters of the Poor against the HHS contraceptive mandate. Archbishop Wenski said he hopes that Tuesday's decision in Espinoza will bode well for the Sisters.
Both cases, he said, "really deal with the freedom to serve" and the freedom of Catholics to live out their faith in the public square.
As the new chair of the religious freedom committee, Archbishop Wenski said his most pressing issue is simply figuring out how to operate the committee in spite of the "handicaps" of the new coronavirus pandemic.
One positive note, he said, was the "tremendous assistance to parishes and schools across the country" from loans under the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), an emergency loan program set up by Congress in March to keep small businesses and non-profits afloat during the pandemic. According to CBS News, by early May around 9,000 Catholic parishes received funding under the first two rounds of PPP loans, to help keep employees on payroll.
Religious freedom in foreign countries is also under threat, Wenski said, from a "hard despotism" in regions such as the Middle East and China, where Christians are imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith.
(Story continues below)
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Meanwhile, some Christian churches have been locked in court battles with state and local governments over restrictions on public gatherings during the new coronavirus pandemic. The Justice Department has said that restrictions on churches must be temporary and not single out religion for stricter limits than other gatherings such as protests or commerce.
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio justified his encouragement of mass protests against racism despite public health warnings on mass gatherings, saying that the protests "grappling" with America's history of racism "is not the same question as the understandably aggrieved store owner or the devout religious person who wants to go back to services."
"As Catholics, we understand the common good," Wenski told CNA, noting that bishops suspended public Masses during the pandemic because it was understood as "a real public health threat."
However, he said, governments cannot target religious groups unfairly, allowing mass protests or other gatherings while putting strict limits on public Masses.
"When you see that disparate treatment, then you have to ask whether that is because of some religious animus, and that's where we have to be very careful," he said.
Wenski brings prior experience with the conference to his new role, having served as the chair of the bishops' domestic justice and human development committee from 2013 to 2016, and head of the international justice and peace committee from 2005 to 2008.