The face of religious freedom

First slide

WASHINGTON - With meetings at the White House and testimony before Congress, Archbishop William E. Lori, who will be installed May 16 as the next archbishop of Baltimore, has been one of the most visible faces of the U.S. Catholic Church in recent weeks.

As chairman of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, he has been leading their efforts to fight what the bishops see as encroachments on the religious freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, especially from the Obama administration's requirement that most religious employers provide free contraceptives to their employees through their health insurance plans.

"We will not violate our consciences," he told a House committee in mid-February, saying that the issue is about "forcing the Church" to provide contraceptives against church teachings. "That's what we don't want to do. It's one thing when tax dollars pay for it. It's another when church dollars do."

Following a March meeting with White House officials about the contraceptive mandate, Archbishop Lori told Catholic News Service that the administration's definition of religious institutions that could be exempt appears "here to stay" and "non-negotiable."

"We find that to be distressing and it does not bode well for future discussions," he said.

At a news conference at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Archbishop Lori said religious freedom should be an issue that concerns all Americans.

"As someone involved in the leadership of the church over the years," he said, "it was hard to miss that there's been an erosion of religious liberty over time - sometimes through laws, sometimes through court decisions and sometimes through the increasing secularity of the culture."

As archbishop of Baltimore, Archbishop Lori will serve as president of the Maryland Catholic Conference and expects to make his voice heard on important issues of the day.

"I think it's very important we are there not only representing the interests of the church," he said, "but looking for all the ways in which we can serve the common good."

Archbishop Lori said he expects that religious vocations will be one of his priorities in Baltimore, building on the work of his immediate predecessors. During his tenure in Bridgeport from 2001 to the present, 35 priests were ordained and 39 seminarians are currently in formation. Eight orders of women religious and a new religious institute were all welcomed into the Diocese of Bridgeport under his leadership.

The new archbishop hopes to embrace a wide variety of tools for communication, including print, electronic media and social media.

"This is where the young people are," he said, "this is where some of this new evangelization is driven forward and this is where you sometimes find people interested in giving their lives to a vocation as well. These are all instruments of the Gospel."

In addition to his work on religious liberty, Archbishop Lori has been active on other issues within the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops since 1995, when he became an auxiliary bishop in Washington.

He served on the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse (now the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People) and was instrumental in drafting the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." He also serves on the committees on doctrine and pro-life activities and the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.

In 2005, he was elected supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, a post he continues to hold. He writes a series of monthly articles for the Connecticut-based organization's magazine, Columbia.

During his episcopacy in Bridgeport, Archbishop Lori launched several initiatives in support of Catholic education, vocations, Catholic Charities and evangelization.

In 2004, he announced a major restructuring of the Diocese of Bridgeport's 37 Catholic schools, which educate more than 11,000 children.

Archbishop Lori noted that he has visited the archbishop's residence on Charles Street "many times," but never imagined that he would live there.

"One never knows what goes into an appointment," he said, "but I would have to say the very thought of teaching the faith, promoting and defending religious liberty and serving the common good of society from a chair once occupied by Archbishop John Carroll is very humbling and I hope it will be a source of great strength and great grace for whatever the church calls me to do."

Contributing to this story was George P. Matysek Jr. in Baltimore.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970