BALTIMORE — The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops opened a new front in their fight against abortion and same-sex marriage on Monday, recasting their opposition as a struggle for “religious liberty” against a government and a culture that are infringing on the church’s rights.
The bishops have expressed increasing exasperation as more states have legalized same-sex marriage, and the Justice Department has refused to go to bat for the Defense of Marriage Act, legislation that established the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
“We see in our culture a drive to neuter religion,” Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the bishops conference, said in a news conference Monday at the bishops’ annual meeting in Baltimore. He added that “well-financed, well-oiled sectors” were trying “to push religion back into the sacristy.”
Archbishop Dolan also came prepared to answer questions about the sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State University, which has reminded so many observers of the Catholic Church’s own abuse scandal. He said that the accusations against a former university football coach were a reminder that sexual abuse is a universal problem that affects most institutions.
“Every time that once again takes over the headlines we once again bow our heads in shame,” the archbishop said. “We know what you’re going through, and you can count on our prayers.”
The bishops are struggling to reclaim the role they played in the 1980s and into the ’90s as a nationally recognized voice on the moral dimension of public policy issues like economic inequality, workers’ rights, immigration and nuclear weapons proliferation. Since then, however, they have reordered their priorities, with abortion and homosexuality eclipsing poverty and economic injustice.
But as the sexual-abuse scandal largely overshadowed their agenda in the last decade, their pronouncements on politics and morality have been met with indifference even by many of their own flock. The bishops issue guidelines for Catholic voters every election season, a document known as “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” which is distributed in many parishes. But the bishops were informed at their meeting on Monday that a recent study commissioned by Fordham University in New York found that only 16 percent of Catholics had heard of the document, and only 3 percent had read it.
Nevertheless, the bishops remain a forceful political lobby, powerful enough to nearly derail the president’s health care overhaul two years ago over their concerns about financing for abortion. Last week, the White House, cognizant of the bishops’ increasing ire, invited Archbishop Dolan to a private meeting with President Obama, their second. Archbishop Dolan said they talked about the religious liberty issue, among others.
“I found the president of the United States to be very open to the sensitivities of the Catholic community,” Archbishop Dolan said in the news conference. “I left there feeling a bit more at peace about this issue than when I entered.”
But in an impassioned address to the prelates, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., the chairman of the bishops’ newly established committee on religious liberty, said the church would urge priests and laypeople to take up the religious liberty cause. Bishop Lori said that in states like Illinois and Massachusetts, and in the District of Columbia, Catholic agencies that received state financing had been forced to stop offering adoption and foster care services because those states required them to help same-sex couples to adopt, just as they helped heterosexual couples.
Bishop Lori said in his speech, “The services which the Catholic Church and other denominations provide are more crucial than ever, but it is becoming more and more difficult for us to deliver these services in a manner that respects the very faith that impels us to provide them.”
The bishops have also been lobbying the Department of Health and Human Services to expand the religious exemption to the mandate in Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul that requires private insurers to pay for contraception. The exemption, as currently written, would still require Catholic hospitals and universities to cover birth control for most of their employees — which the church says is a violation of its religious freedom.
Some liberal Catholic commentators have criticized the bishops’ priorities, saying they are playing into the culture wars. John Gehring, Catholic outreach coordinator with Faith in Public Life, a liberal religious advocacy group in Washington, said, “The bishops speak in hushed tones when it comes to poverty and economic justice issues, and use a big megaphone when it comes to abortion and religious liberty issues.”