Few American Catholic leaders in recent years have had more occasion to wrestle with questions of religious freedom, including the Little Sisters of the Poor case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, than Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore.

Lori heads the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, which is probably simultaneously both the most impactful, and also most controversial, initiative undertaken by the bishops in a long time. It’s helped put religious freedom on the map as a voting issue in American politics, but’s also drawn accusations of being partisan and divisive.

Earlier this month, the committee released a new video celebrating the legacy of Dignitatis Humanae, the landmark document of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) on religious freedom, and focusing on the Little Sisters.

Lori spoke to Crux on Friday about the video, the Little Sisters case, and perceptions that the bishops’ religious freedom efforts have driven them into a de facto alliance with the political right.

Crux: What’s the reaction been to the video?

Lori: I think it’s been very positive. It tells the story in a fast-moving way that’s both informative and captivating. Of course, the stars are the Little Sisters, and it tells their story very effectively while, I hope and pray, giving people an appetite to sit down and re-read Dignitatis Humanae.

Do you see signs that Dignitatis Humanae is still a point of reference?

Within the Church, that’s very much the case. There’s a lot of attention given to Dignitatis Humanae, not just during the 50th anniversary year, but in general ever since we began to see a renewed focus on religious liberty inside the bishops’ conference and in the various programs of the conference.

What’s your gut tell you about the outcome of the Little Sisters case?

I believe cautious optimism is the order of the day. I doubt the court would have taken such an extraordinary step of not only asking for additional briefs, but also proposing some possible lines of a solution, had it not been the case that they really want to resolve this. I take that as a very good sign.

Do you have a sense of timing?

No, I really don’t. All along, we’ve been expecting a result sometime in June toward the end of the court’s session. Often these rulings come during the Fortnight for Freedom [an annual celebration of religious freedom sponsored by the bishops’ conference], which gives us a little added impetus for prayer.

What would it mean if the Little Sisters win?

It would be very significant. It wouldn’t just be a private victory for the Little Sisters and their plaintiffs, but I believe we would have the lines for solving future challenges like this that are bound to come. It would be very useful and helpful to the Church and to other faiths that will also face conscientious objection challenges in the years ahead.

In general, I think it would be a victory for religious liberty, but not an advance. We would simply be holding on to the freedoms we’ve always had.

What if the Little Sisters lose?

It’s a very interesting question as to what might happen. I’m certainly not a lawyer, but if the Little Sisters lose I think we’re going to have to huddle and ask what the possibilities are.

Immediately, we’d have to comb through the whole diversity of insurance plans that exist in the life of the Church and asses what sort of plans might still afford us some leeway, particularly the plans that are self-funded or where the backup insurer is also a Church organization, such as the Christian Brothers. We’d just have to take a very calm look at the options.

Is some of that already happening?

Sure, because we’ve been kind of worried about this for a long time. We always knew a day of judgment would come in some form or another, so we’ve been looking at our options.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, pictured at the U.S. bishops' meeting in November in Baltimore, said proposals to ban people based on their religion raises alarms. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, pictured at the U.S. bishops’ meeting in November in Baltimore. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Does it frustrate you that many Americans don’t see matters such as the mandates in terms of religious freedom, but through other categories – women’s rights, for instance, or freedom of choice?

That’s a very big challenge, with which we’ve been trying to grapple for quite a long time. What we want people to understand is that the Church isn’t merely taking a policy position, but we’re a Church that serves. We have to begin there. We serve not only by our charitable and social services, but our provision of health care.

Some of that comes in big hospitals, some in local clinics, and of course the U.S. bishops have been in favor of expanding health care, especially for the poor and needy, since 1919. Our hospitals do an enormous amount of charitable care even today.

It’s our faith that leads us to provide these services, and in doing so we just want to be true to our faith. We want the freedom in our institutions to build what St. John Paul II called a “culture of life,” and that doesn’t just mean escaping complicity in evil by the skin of your teeth, it means the right to build an organization that witnesses to your teachings both internally and externally.

You know, a lot of people will tell you when they go to work for a Catholic school, or a Catholic charity, or even in a chancery office, that the atmosphere is different. Sometimes they leave to get more money and then come back in a couple of weeks to say, “I really liked working here.” That’s because we try to build a certain culture.

Part of that culture is wanting to run our insurance programs and all of our internal operations in a way consonant with our faith. I don’t expect everybody to agree with us, and a lot of people probably wouldn’t want to work for us because they don’t agree with our mission, but we’re going to stoutly maintain our right not only to worship freely but to serve and to advocate. That’s not about discrimination or bigotry, it’s not about attenuating anyone else’s rights, it’s about being true to ourselves.

How do you respond to accusations that you’re being partisan, basically aligning the bishops with the political right?

First of all, we didn’t go looking for this fight, and frankly it’s the last thing we want to do. We’re all busy trying to evangelize, to sustain our schools and social services, and so on. We don’t want to have to be defending our freedoms. We’d much rather just give thanks for them, and move on.

We’re not out for any partisan political purpose. If you look at the positions the U.S. bishops take, we’re solidly on both sides of the aisle. On immigration, on universal health care, on paid sick leave … we’re on both sides. I suppose people would peg our pro-life and religious liberty efforts as politically right-wing, but I don’t think that’s particularly helpful. We’re following what we believe to be the requirements of the Gospel. Sometimes in our culture that’s going to come off as either politically right-wing or left-wing, but we happen to think it’s just what the Lord wants.

Honestly, I don’t think our major challenge is that people think our religious freedom efforts are partisan or right-wing. The problem is that most of the difficulties we’ve encountered in recent years are very real, but they’re extremely bureaucratic in nature. You start talking about insurance plan mandates, and most people’s eyes just glaze over. Most people just want to go to church on Sunday and see it open, see the school open, and so on, and don’t always understand why you’re making an issue out of these other concerns.

We have to convince people that these things are real, and will have consequences if left unchecked. I’m not sure we’ve found the right way to do that yet … we’re chipping away, raising consciousness, providing resources, but we’ve got a long way to go.

You’ve increased the focus during the “Fortnight for Freedom” on persecuted Christians around the world … talk about why that’s important.

This year’s theme is “Witnesses to Freedom,” and we very much had in mind the plight of persecuted believers all over the world, especially Christians being beheaded, exiled, and dispossessed. We’re bringing over from England the relics of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, and doing a tour with the relics in various parts of the country.

Religious liberty at home and abroad are very much linked.

First of all, we who tend to take our freedoms for granted should pay close attention to the courage of those who are suffering for the faith. Second, we should also keep the lamp of freedom burning brightly as a beacon of hope for those who are suffering and persecuted. There should be a great solidarity across the board.