For the last six years, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore has been one of the most visible, not to mention controversial, members of the American Catholic hierarchy. That’s because he leads the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, seen by fans as one of the most important initiatives the bishops have launched in a long time, but by critics as the tip of the spear for their involvement in America’s wars of culture.

The committee sponsors the “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign, an annual two-week period from June 21 to July 4 intended to spotlight issues of religious freedom. In recent years, for instance, it’s highlighted the tug-of-war between the Catholic Church and the Obama administration over the contraception mandate imposed as part of health care reform.

This year, the Fortnight for Freedom campaign has commissioned Crux to produce a series of video interviews with experts and commentators on various aspects of religious freedom. On Friday, Crux spoke to Lori about this year’s edition and what he hopes to achieve.

Among other things, Lori said:

  • Originally the ad hoc committee was a response to a perceived “erosion” of religious freedom on the local and state level, such as a bill in Connecticut that would have stripped pastors of their authority to make decisions in a parish in favor of an elected parish committee.
  • President Donald Trump’s recent executive order on religious freedom is a welcome development, but “the devil is in the details” and Lori cautioned that we need to see how it plays out.
  • There’s still “work ahead of us” on the contraception to ensure that what the administration is offering is a real exemption, not “another ‘accommodation we have to fool around with.” That includes, he said, defining preventive services “so they really do pertain to preventing diseases and not to inducing abortions or preventing birth.”
  • Repeal of the Johnson Amendment barring churches from endorsing political candidates is not a priority for the bishops, because, Lori said, “that’s really not our job.”
  • This year’s Fortnight for Freedom will include a focus on persecuted Christians and other religious minorities abroad, an issue, he said, that everybody needs to be worried about.”

The following are excerpts from Crux’s interview with Lori, which can be seen in video format here.

Crux: Can you explain what the genesis of the Fortnight for Freedom was, and what you hope it’s achieving?

Lori: The Fortnight for Freedom was created, like many other efforts in the conference, to raise awareness of the issues that pertain to religious freedom at home and abroad, to be a vehicle for prayer, and for education and action. It was one of the first things that the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom came up with. We decided on this period, because within this 14-day stretch, this fortnight, there are the feast days of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher and also a number of other martyrs, people who died for their faith, and it culminates on July 4. It seemed to us a wonderful opportunity to raise awareness.

Now, when it began some six years ago, it was a brand-new thing and it included a lot of big rallies and a lot of big-ticket events. I think as time has gone on, it’s become less an occasion for a lot of big events and more an occasion for people to gather in smaller groups and study groups, to raise awareness in parishes through the Prayers of the Faithful, through preaching aids. Of course, there are a couple of signature events, most notably the opening Mass in the Basilica of the Assumption, the nation’s oldest cathedral right here in Baltimore, and the closing Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on July 4.

This year is a little different, because of the Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando. That’s where the final Mass will be this year.

Let’s take a further step back. When the bishops created the Ad Hoc Committee, there was a perception that religious freedom was being eroded. Can you explain where that concern came from?

Years ago, when the Ad Hoc Committee was created, I believe it was the result of reports coming into the conference from bishops all around the country, not of outright persecution, not the kinds of blatant things we see overseas, tragically enough, but more a sense that there were assaults on religious freedom often at the state and local levels. It came in the form of unfriendly legislation, in the form of non-discrimination bills that were actually discriminating against religious people and religious institutions, and in the form of policies and court decisions.

The word ‘erosion’ is a pretty good word. When there’s only minor erosion, no one gets alarmed. But after a while you begin to see bigger chunks of the shore washing out to sea, and you begin to say, you know, it might be time for us to shore this up. I think that was the perception.

For example, in Connecticut, when I was serving there, there was a bill actually introduced that would have changed the way in which parishes are managed. We didn’t ask for this, God’s holy people didn’t ask for this, but a couple of legislators got the idea that instead of having the pastor, with his consultative groups and under the direction of the bishop, basically manage the parish, they would mandate that an elected committee would run parishes. Pastors and bishops and folks like us would basically be sidelined from any part in parish and diocesan administration.

There’s a word, for that, isn’t there, which is ‘congregationalism’? That model was floated and rejected for the Catholic Church here 200 years ago.

That was exactly our reaction. We said this is a perfectly good model for running a church if you are a congregationalist, and that was the established religion in Connecticut until 1819. We reacted rather strongly to that – we had a great big rally, and we kind of closed the capital down.

I had the bad sense to sit down and write a letter on religious freedom. I thought the time had come, not only to react to what was quite clearly an assault on the freedom of the Church to organize itself as it sees fit according to its own teachings, but to get down to the basics of what Dignitatis Humanae, the declaration of the Second Vatican Council on religious freedom, taught. I wrote this letter with the very unoriginal title of ‘Let Freedom Ring.’

Then I’m sitting in a bishops’ meeting, and suddenly we’re talking about religious freedom at the national level. To my surprise, flashed up on the screen is a copy of my pastoral letter. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this looks serious!’ Sure enough, the bishops really engaged, and many of them were reporting things happening, not nationally so much but more locally and at the state level. I thought it was great that I was not alone, that everybody else was having similar perceptions.

Then a couple of months later, when Tropical Storm Irene was about to hit Connecticut, I was down in my basement exercising when the phone rang. It was Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan [of New York], who was the president of the conference at the time. He said he was thinking of creating this Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, and wanted to know if I’d like to chair it. That’s not a question you should answer when you’re on an elliptical! It’s a question you should answer when you’ve prayed for an hour in your chapel. But, I foolishly answered on the spot, and said that if it helps the cause, sure, sign me up for the duration. That’s turned out now to be six years, God help me, and God help the conference!

It’s been a tremendous education. The committee was created the following September, and my job was to pull together a group of bishops who would have an interest in this and some expertise in it. There are bishops who have studied law, studied other disciplines, that seemed very helpful. We also wanted to get some first-class consultants. The idea was to be the vehicle by which the United States bishops could sort of shine a light on these religious freedom challenges. Our mandate was mostly domestic, thinking of this more in local terms and being a clearing house for what was happening locally around the country. It was only a little bit later that we realized we would have a lot of challenges at the federal level.

The battles over the contraception mandates as part of health care reform weren’t yet on the horizon at the time the committee was formed, correct?

That’s correct. That was not on our radar screen at all when we started this work.

One thing we really wanted to do, and that I was charged to do, was to provide teaching vehicles. We did do a resource letter on “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” kind of a summary of the Church’s teaching on religious freedom. We got that done rather quickly. The Fortnight for Freedom, these 14 days in June and July, was also created as an opportunity for us to teach about religious freedom. Some people say the term ‘fortnight’ is a little old-fashioned, and it is …

Well, it’s a British word, and if you want to talk about freedom, reminding us of the American Revolution probably isn’t a bad way to go, right?

I think it’s a word Charles Carroll would have used, and Archbishop John Hughes would have used, so I’m sticking with it.

Plus, the alliteration works …

You know, it does!

You and I are speaking shortly after President Donald Trump released an executive order on religious freedom.  What do you make of it?

I’m certainly glad the president is interested in religious freedom, and I’m glad for the general statements that have been made about it. I’d react to the executive order much as Cardinal [Daniel] DiNardo [the current president of the USCCB] did in his public statement, which is to say this looks like a good development, we’re glad to see it, especially those parts that promise us some relief from the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act, but we also realize two other things.

First, the devil is in the details, so let’s see how it works out. Secondly, while this is welcome, there are still a lot of other challenges, even at the federal level, that lay before us.

Regarding the contraceptive mandate, this is a very hopeful sign. I think Mother Loraine [Marie Maguire] of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who in many ways have been the public face of this struggle, was heartened by this, and we along with them.

One aspect of the executive order is the repeal, or at least the softening, of the Johnson Amendment making it difficult for churches to endorse political candidates. That’s never really been part of the bishops’ agenda on religious freedom, but how do you assess it?

The repeal, or even adjustments, to the Johnson Amendment has never been a focus for us. It’s not a priority, and in fact it’s not something we’re really seeking at all. If you look at ‘Faithful Citizenship,’ which is kind of the moral guide the bishops put out every four years in advance of a presidential election, you’ll see that we discourage pastors and other representatives of the Church from endorsing or opposing candidates.

That’s really not our job. Our job is to raise up the moral dimensions of the issues that face us as a country, to do so in light of the Church’s social teaching, and to help people form their consciences. To get into partisan politics is a huge distraction from our basic mission, which is to evangelize, to spread the Gospel, to teach the faith, and to apply the faith by serving others. That’s our job.

We’ve got all these other challenges to religious freedom, and we’ve got all this work ahead of us with HHS and Secretary Price to make sure that the fix for the contraceptive mandate is really a fix, not another ‘accommodation’ that we have to fool around with but a real exemption. Maybe we can get ‘preventive services’ redefined, so they really do pertain to preventing diseases and not to inducing abortions or preventing birth. We have a lot of work ahead of us, so the Johnson Amendment repeal is really not front and center for us at all. We want to stay the course, and really not get into partisan politics.

As you know, President Trump will meet Pope Francis in the Vatican on May 24. What do you think the odds are that religious freedom comes up in that conversation?

Of course I wouldn’t know, but I do remember that when President Obama and Pope Francis met, religious freedom was part of the conversation. It was certainly very much on Pope Francis’s mind when he visited the United States in 2015 …

That trip included a surprise meeting with the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Yes, it was one of those ‘Pope Francis surprises’ that in many ways make him so endearing. He has the knack of moving beyond all the words that the rest of us use, because he’s the master of the gesture. That was a gesture that said, ‘We really love you, Sisters, we know this is not an easy struggle, we know this isn’t something you looked for.’ He just went over to see them, and it spoke volumes. Also, what he said at the White House, what he said in front of Constitutional Hall, was pretty great too. I think he’ll bring it up, though I’m sure there will be other things on his mind as well.

Over time, the Fortnight for Freedom and your religious freedom push have taken on a more international focus, concerned for the persecution of Christians around the world. What do you hope the campaign does to bring awareness and relief to those people?

The theme of this year’s fortnight is ‘Freedom for Mission.’ I think one thing we want to keep saying is that when we defend religious freedom, we are not, and I want to underline this, we are not being self-referential, to use a good Pope Francis phrase. In fact, our defense of freedom is outward-looking. It’s all about human dignity and it’s all about the freedom to serve, whether it’s at home, in schools, hospitals, clinics, Catholic charities, adoption services, all of those areas where we are not just serving our own but serving the common good. It’s freedom to take the love of Christ and spread it around in really practical ways.

If that’s our focus, it also has to be our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, in Africa and other places, where Christians and other minorities are being persecuted and killed for their faith, and where we also have people from Catholic Relief Services, located right here in Baltimore, plus Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus are involved – places where we’re there, and where we really want to serve and protect people, give them the necessities of life, help bring them to a place of safety, serve all of the refugees that this religious persecution has created, and to protect some of the most ancient Christian communities in the world.

That’s not the mandate of the committee, but we shouldn’t be imprisoned by a flow chart. This is something that everybody needs to be worried about. When we do the fortnight, we definitely want to throw light on what’s happening internationally.

We’re going to be doing this great big convocation down in Orlando, so while I may normally get 1,000 for the fortnight’s opening Mass in the basilica, I think this is going to be a very large Mass and a very wonderful opportunity to talk about what religious freedom really means, why it is really important for the good of every society and every person, why it’s crucial for the Church’s mission, and also to shine a spotlight for those most in need of our love and concern.