How Well Are They Being Heard?

During its meeting in Atlanta on June 13-15, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reaffirmed by a voice vote a recent statement of the U.S.C.C.B. Administrative Committee on religious liberty, gave a green light to a new statement on the economy and wondered aloud if they needed professional help to better communicate their message to the American public.

The bishops have good cause to worry about how well their message is being received by the U.S. public, even about how well it is accepted by U.S. Catholics. A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute reports that 57 percent of Catholics overall do not believe that the right to religious liberty is being threatened in the United States today. Catholics overall also believe, with most Americans, that most employers should be required to provide employees with health care plans that cover contraception at no cost. And more than six out of 10 Catholics over all say that religiously affiliated agencies that receive federal funding should not be able to refuse to place children with qualified gay and lesbian couples.

In a presentation on religious liberty issues, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, acknowledged the U.S. bishops’ “fortnight for freedom” campaign has come under heavy criticism in the secular media, in the blogosphere and by some Catholics as being a partisan political effort. But the two-week period is meant to be free of politics and will emphasize church teaching on religious freedom, he said. The fortnight from June 21 to July 4 will be a period of prayer, education and action aimed at explaining how the federal health care contraceptive mandate violates religious principles.

At the end of an hourlong discussion of religious freedom in the United States, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of conference, asked the body of bishops if it would be willing to declare its approval of “United for Religious Freedom,” the unanimous statement of the Administrative Committee issued on March 14. Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., who recently provoked media speculation about the unity of the bishops in this self-described fight for religious liberty when he suggested the campaign should be thoroughly reviewed by the conference, seconded Cardinal Dolan’s motion. The statement was affirmed in a surprise voice vote.

Al J. Notzon III, chairman of the lay-led National Review Board, presented a report marking the 10th anniversary of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” Noting both progress and the need for continued vigilance, Notzon said the church’s credibility continues to suffer because many believe clergy sexual abuse remains at a high level and that local bishops continue to cover up the problem.

In his remarks to the assembly, Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad made an impassioned plea on behalf of Iraq’s dwindling Christian population and called upon the U.S. bishops to press the Obama administration to take steps to protect religious rights in the Middle Eastern country. “As leaders of the church in the United States,” he told the bishops, “you bear a special responsibility toward the people and Christians of Iraq. In 2003 your government led the war that brought some terrible consequences. The U.S. government can and must do all it can to encourage tolerance and respect in Iraq, to help Iraq strengthen the rule of law and to provide assistance that helps create jobs for Iraqis, especially those on the margins.”

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