If Baltimore Archbishop William Lori has a hobby, it’s reading books about modern American history. He even named his golden retrievers Barnes and Noble. A few years ago, that inclination merged with another: pent-up anger at a culture he feels ridicules his church.
An effort by Connecticut lawmakers to reorganize the church, jokes about priests on “Saturday Night Live,” a legal climate that has forced the church in some cases to choose between serving same-sex couples and its own teachings — the insults mounted. He finally decided he needed to take a stand.
Now Lori — who worked in the Washington Archdiocese for more than two decades — is at the helm of the Catholic bishops’ nationwide “Fortnight of Freedom” campaign, two weeks of events focused on religious freedom beginning Thursday. Punctuated by a rally hosted by the Archdiocese of Washington at George Washington University on Sunday, the campaign will culminate with a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine in the District on Independence Day.
As the leader of the church’s largest — and perhaps most controversial — effort in a generation or more, the archbishop’s task is to convince Catholics that religious freedom is under attack in the United States and that religious traditionalists, in particular, are victims of something akin to racism and xenophobia. The campaign’s main rallying cry has been an Obama administration mandate requiring most faith-based employers to make contraception available to employees.
“Aren’t we 40 percent of the population?” Lori asked during an interview this week at a retreat center in rural Maryland. “Don’t we provide more health care, more social services, than any other non-governmental organization? Why are we always in the crosshairs? Let us alone. Let us do our job. Let us be Catholics. Let us make our contribution to the common good according to our own likes. That’s what America is about.”
A lot is at stake for the bishops, who have seen their authority severely eroded in recent decades amid the clergy sexual abuse crises and Catholics publicly ignoring church teaching on contraception, among other things.
Polls show many Catholics are unconvinced of the idea that religious liberty is under assault. Even some supportive bishops have worried publicly about the appearance of partisanship in an election-season movement that has encouraged priests each Sunday to sermonize against President Obama’s policies.
The bishops’ “reversal of fortune” over the past decade may be at the root of some of the public’s skepticism, said University of Notre Dame historian R. Scott Appleby.
“Their social standing, social capital and overall credibility as public figures has taken a serious hit,” Appleby said. “Now, when they need to rally Catholics to support their position on this crucial issue of religious freedom, the PR problem is exacting a cost. Many Catholics hear their message only through the filters of the sexual abuse scandal, the investigation of the [nuns] and other controversial issues.”