(NCR) WASHINGTON — It’s rare for an upcoming administrative committee meeting convened by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to prompt a slew of news stories and opinion columns, but these are uncommon times.
Today, the administrative committee marked the close of its two-day meeting with a statement that expressed the bishops’ resolve to win the battle to overturn the contraception mandate, putting to rest media speculation and partisan spin that predicted Church leaders might retreat from their public stand. “The Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, gathered for its March 2012 meeting, is strongly unified and intensely focused in its opposition to the various threats to religious freedom in our day,” read the statement issued this afternoon, March 14.
The statement confirmed plans to release an upcoming “Statement on Religious Liberty,” a document of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. The document is likely to be the centerpiece of an ambitious, nationwide catechetical effort to present both Catholic teaching on religious liberty and the need for exemptions based on religious and moral grounds.
Though Cardinal Dolan and other bishops have expressed frustration at the Obama administration’s refusal to broaden the religious exemption for the mandate, the committee members said they are still prepared to revive dialogue with the White House, while pursuing legal and legislative remedies. “We will continue to accept any invitation to dialogue with the executive branch to protect the religious freedom that is rightly ours.”
“We will continue to pursue legislation to restore the same level of religious freedom we have enjoyed until just recently. And we will continue to explore our options for relief from the courts, under the U.S. Constitution and other federal laws that protect religious freedom. All of these efforts will proceed concurrently and in a manner that is mutually reinforcing,” read the statement.
Over the past two months, Cardinal Dolan and Bishop William Lori, the chairman of the USCCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, have traversed an unexpectedly hostile landscape shaped by partisan attacks, outright slander and internal criticism and dissent from influential Catholic leaders and commentators.
Recently, media coverage of the upcoming administrative meeting aired rumors that the bishops might reassess their strong stand on the mandate — even after Cardinal Dolan recounted in a March 2 letter to his brother bishops that the White House had essentially ended a formal dialogue regarding a more robust exemption for church-affiliated groups.
A March 13 story in Reuters reported that the USCCB Administrative Committee meeting would offer a forum for Church leaders who were concerned that “their battle against the Obama administration over birth control risks being viewed by the public as narrow and partisan and thus diminishes the Church’s moral authority, the sources said.” Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr., wrote a March 11 column apparently designed to press the bishops to retreat from their effort to rescind the mandate.
“The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops will make an important decision this week: Do they want to defend the Church’s legitimate interest in religious autonomy, or do they want to wage an election-year war against President Obama?” “And do the most conservative bishops want to junk the Roman Catholic Church as we have known it, with its deep commitment to both life and social justice, and turn it into the Tea Party at prayer?” asked Dionne.
Prepared for Long Battle
George Weigel, the papal biographer and public inellectual, dove into the debate, dismissing such prognostications as nothing but sour grapes.
“The argument, such as it is, doubtless reflects certain currents of thought within the Church in the United States — those currents that are deeply uncomfortable with the bishops’ emphasis in recent years on a robust assertion of Catholic identity,” he wrote in a March 12 column for National Review Online.
Today’s statement issued by the USCCB, however, suggested that Cardinal Dolan planned no retreat or detour. Rather, he is proceeding with the outlines of a plan that has been in motion since last August, when he first raised concern about the growing threat to religious freedom posed by federal and state laws.
Indeed, the conference leadership shows every sign that they are prepared for a long battle and are keen to draw more Catholics into this important work.
“A Statement on Religious Liberty,” the upcoming document issued by the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty,” will present “the history of religious liberty in our great nation; surveys the current range of threats to this foundational principle; and states clearly the resolve of the bishops to act strongly, in concert with our fellow citizens, in its defense,” read the statement. In his column, E.J. Dionne argued that the bishops had failed to reach the American public and should take what they could get from the White House.
“Opposition in the Church to extreme rhetoric is growing. Moderate and progressive bishops are alarmed that Catholicism’s deep commitment to social justice is being shunted aside in this single-minded and exceptionally narrow focus on the health-care exemption.”
In the wake of a relentless partisan campaign to characterize the bishops’ position as an effort to ban contraception, followed by the furor generated by radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh’s attack on a Georgetown Law school student, Church leaders, too, may have feared that their stand for the “first freedom” had backfired. However, a CBS/New York Times poll conducted in early March found that the majority of Americans agreed with the bishops’ position on the mandate.
‘Not About Contraception’
But even without the encouraging evidence of opinion polls, Cardinal Dolan and his team appear undaunted by the events of the past two months, marked by contentious Congressional hearings, tense meetings at the White House and a dizzying atmosphere of political spin.
“[W]e wish to clarify what this debate is — and is not — about. This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church’s hand and with the Church’s funds. This is not about the religious freedom of Catholics only, but also of those who recognize that their cherished beliefs may be next on the block,” read the statement. The conference leadership expressed thanks to Catholics who have worked to get the message out to the public.
“It is your enthusiastic unity in defense of religious freedom that has made such a dramatic and positive impact in this historic public debate. With your continued help, we will not be divided, and we will continue forward as one,” read the statement. So, the speculation will cease, at least for now, as the bishops’ conference continues to lay the groundwork for its educational, legal and legislative work.
Critics who persist in their view that the bishops have become unnecessarily entangled in an unwinnable and messy political fight might ponder the insights Cardinal Dolan served up during his Feb. 17 address on the New Evangelization before the pre-Consistory gathering of the Pope and College of Cardinals.
At the Vatican, then-Archbishop Dolan produced a forthright diagnosis of the underlying problem that is yielding a host of modest and radical threats to the free exercise of religion in the United States and in other parts of the West.
“Secularization, which presents itself in cultures by imposing a world and humanity without reference to Transcendence, is invading every aspect of daily life and developing a mentality in which God is effectively absent, wholly or partially, from human life and awareness.
“This secularization is not only an external threat to believers, but has been manifest for some time in the heart of the Church herself. It profoundly distorts the Christian faith from within and, consequently, the lifestyle and daily behavior of believers,” he told the assembly of Church leaders in Rome. “They live in the world and are often marked, if not conditioned, by the cultural imagery that impresses contradictory and impelling models regarding the practical denial of God: There is no longer any need.”