U.S. Catholic bishops, concerned that the American public perceives the church as divided and weak, vowed on Wednesday to present a united front during a "Fortnight to Freedom" celebration of religious liberty that begins next week in dioceses across the nation.
Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who has been leading the campaign, told bishops assembled for a national convention in Atlanta that Fortnight should focus on the principles of religious freedom and should not dwell on "parties, candidates or elections."
Yet the bishops did not repudiate the sharp, and often sharply partisan, rhetoric that has characterized the religious liberty campaign, which church officials launched earlier this year in protest of an Obama Administration regulation requiring all health insurance plans to provide free birth control.
One bishop, however, did urge his colleagues to refrain from referring to the 2010 federal healthcare law as "Obamacare," since that is a term used mostly by opponents of the president and could be seen as overly partisan.
The church teaches that artificial contraception is a sin. Bishops protesting the mandate have compared Obama with Hitler and Stalin and accused his administration of strangling the Catholic Church.
"UNBELIEVABLE AND EGREGIOUS"
Leading up to the meeting, some liberal Catholics had expressed hope that at least a handful of bishops would stand up to urge the assembly to moderate its rhetoric and take pains to avoid being seen as excessively partisan.
Bishop Stephen Blaire seemed to take a step in that direction in an interview with a Jesuit magazine in late May in which he called for a "broader discussion" among bishops to ensure that their message of religious liberty was not "co-opted" by groups "very far to the right."
On Wednesday, however, Blaire made a point of praising the religious liberty campaign and calling the federal contraceptive mandate an "unbelievable and egregious" intrusion on the right of the church and its institutions to follow their consciences. He led a motion, which passed unanimously, to reaffirm a document calling for Catholics to unite behind the religious freedom campaign.
Even bishops who have called for more dialogue with the Obama Administration said this was not an issue on which they could seek reconciliation. "These are clear examples of the freedom of religion being restricted," said Bishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe.
Several dozen Catholic institutions, including 13 dioceses, have filed lawsuits seeking to overturn the contraceptive mandate. The issue could become moot if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Obama healthcare law in a ruling expected later this month, but the mandate could also survive if the law, or some portions of it, are upheld.
The Obama administration exempted religious institutions from the contraceptive mandate but used a very narrow definition: Only churches and groups that primarily serve and employ people of just one faith can qualify.
That means most Catholic hospitals, universities and charities cannot qualify, as they serve the public at large. The administration sought to accommodate those institutions by giving them an extra year to comply with the mandate, until August 2013, and by saying they would not have to pay for the contraceptive coverage themselves; their insurance companies would pick up the tab.
The compromise satisfied some Catholics, mostly on the left, but the bishops remain implacably opposed. They want an exemption not just for all religious institutions of any type but also for any individual business owner who objects to contraceptive coverage on moral or religious grounds, even if he runs an entirely secular business.
MUSIC AND CAR MAGNETS
Archbishop Lori made clear the bishops would not back down from that principle. "Defending religious freedom is not a walk in the park," he said in a speech, noting that the bishops had come in for criticism and even derision for their views. "It may be tempting to get discouraged, to second-guess the effort and to soft-pedal our message, but in fact I would say this should encourage us to do exactly the opposite."
The bishops said they hoped to enlist prominent lay Catholics to make statements and appear in promotions supporting the religious liberty campaign, to combat what they said was an erroneous public impression that the rest of the faithful do not stand with them on this issue.
Sister Simone Campbell, a nun who runs a social justice advocacy group and has clashed with the bishops frequently, said she found the "scripted, stilted" tone of the meeting disappointing and unproductive.
"I'm really concerned that our leadership seems to think there is no room for dialogue in our discernment of the way forward," she said. "The bishops don't understand what it is to build a coalition in a democratic culture."
The Fortnight for Freedom campaign runs from June 21 to July 4. It features a variety of events designed to appeal to Catholics of all ages, from a Twitter campaign to a music festival at a winery to traditional Masses to the distribution of 10,000 car magnets promoting religious freedom. Two Kansas bishops have organized rallies in front of government buildings in Topeka and Wichita.
Other dioceses are sponsoring conferences and public prayer. Bishops are also encouraging Catholics to pray briefly for religious liberty each day at 3 p.m. in a campaign they dub "A Minute to Win It!"
The campaign and lawsuits are being funded in part by donations from Catholic organizations including Knights of Columbus and the Order of Malta and the Catholic publication Our Sunday Visitor, Lori said.
At the conclusion of the all-day meeting, Cardinal Timothy Dolan showed off the ultimate Fortnight to Freedom fan gear: a red foam hand, the type often waved at sports events, printed with the Fortnight to Freedom logo and the message "#1 Freedom."
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