By AMANDA BEAM
NEW ALBANY —
More than 100 people filled the pews of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Friday night to welcome back New Albany native Archbishop William E. Lori to his hometown. After an introduction by priest Eric Johnson, Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, spoke to the crowd about the interconnectedness of religious liberty and service to the poor.
As the chair of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lori is no stranger to the subject of which he spoke. First and foremost, Lori concentrated on the federal mandate imposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that requires all health care plans provide contraceptive measures, including sterilization, free of cost to their employees.
Although HHS has allowed an exemption for religious institutions, the exception only applies to churches and not to affiliated organizations such as hospitals, colleges and charitable groups. Lori said the new requirement sets a dangerous precedent by regarding these entities as “quasi-religious institutions” not, in the government’s mind, being fully deserving of religious liberty exemptions. Before, he said, the government gave wide latitude to both individual businesses and churches in regard to their moral convictions. Now that protection only protects a “narrow swath.”
“It permits us to express only our faith only in the house of worship but forces schools, hospitals and charities to violate our church’s teaching or face severe fines,” Lori said. “But that’s not what it means to be Catholic.”
In addition, Lori said many in these institutions, as well as individuals, fear their options are limited to the “either/or scenario” of defending religious freedom or tending to the poor. Ministering to the needy is a tenant of the Catholic faith, one that the current pope has espoused through both his sermons and his actions. Some charities and other religious organizations may choose to close their doors rather than participate in a system they find morally inexcusable.
Other followers of the faith, Lori added, have advocated providing relief to society’s most vulnerable should take priority over the defense of religious freedom. Fines from not abiding by the mandate set to go in effect on Jan. 1, 2014, could pose a threat to the survival of many of these organizations.
Yet, to Lori, both helping the poor and championing liberties are dependent on each other.
“We don’t arrive at the kingdom of God by shortcuts. Neither can we arrive there by indulging in ‘either/or’ thinking,” he said. “We are called to do both and to do them generously as inseparable parts of one mission.”
Those in poverty must be seen as a subject, not an object, and given all the dignity and worth endowed by their creator, Lori said. Convictions of faith and reason must go beyond simply providing for physical needs. Restricting a person’s religious freedoms, in turn, affects their human development.
“Our struggle against the HHS mandate is not about the small print,” Lori said. “It’s about protecting the church’s ability to serve the poor in dignity and truth in proclaiming and acting upon the gospel, as Pope Francis has said, in its entirety.”
In response to the restrictions, some in the church have decided on the third option of taking their cases to court. According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, 84 different lawsuits have been filed in opposition to the mandate, 40 of which involve nonprofit entities. The remainder of the legal challenges deals with the right of private businesses like Sebulius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, a case the US Supreme Court has recently agreed to review.
New Albany resident Glenda Mills attended the talk to learn more about how the health care changes will affect her family and to seek clarity on the different options. She said proponents of the mandates concentrate only on the contraceptive aspect of the argument rather than looking at the intrusion into religious freedoms. All citizens, not only Catholics, should be troubled by the new precedent, she added.
“It’s a concern for everybody. They’ve tried to make it a Catholic issue. They’ve tried to make it all about contraception and abortion and not about religious freedom,” Mills said. “There have been lots of denominations and groups that are saying, ‘it’s going to be us next. If it’s not us now, it’s going to be us next.’”
Lori, too, expressed belief that the issue at hand affects more than those of the Catholic faith.
“Religious liberty is worth defending, even if it’s threatened by something as arcane as a federal rule,” Lori said. “Religious liberty is something we value. We value it as believers. We see it as essential to human dignity. We value it as citizens of a nation committed to the constitutional protection of this and other fundamental liberties.”