Cardinal Daniel DiNardo is vice-president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and, if things hold to form, he’s likely to take over the top job in November. Assuming that happens, one thing seems clear: criticism notwithstanding, the American bishops will not be dialing down their push on religious freedom.

Responding to one pundit who recently described a video from the U.S. bishops on the subject as a “ham-fisted attempt at propaganda,” likening it to Nazi filmmaking, DiNardo insisted that “religious freedom is a genuine issue.”

He cited assaults on Christians around the world, and also domestic church/state tensions.

“It’s not just the contraception mandates, but it concerns the future of Catholic charities and our other institutions,” he said. “Increasingly, the government seems to be trying to constrict religious institutions. It’s so coercive.”

“There has to be more leeway, more freedom,” he said.

DiNardo is realistic about the bishops’ success in making that case to a broad public, conceding, for instance, that if the current dispute over the mandates before the Supreme Court were “Bishops v. Obama” rather than the Little Sisters of the Poor, perceptions might be different.

“You can’t dislike the Little Sisters of the Poor, it’s just impossible,” he said.

If the bishops were the face of the fight, he acknowledged, “people would probably say, this is about religious interests, institutional interests, and so on,” adding he’s not really sure if public opinion is turning.

On other points, Di Nardo said:

  • Catholics in the United States should work closely with the Vatican and its diplomatic corps to raise awareness of persecuted Christians around the world.
  • Pope Francis’ advocacy on behalf of immigrant rights could have “long-term results” after the 2016 elections, he believes, no matter who wins, in creating momentum for comprehensive immigration reform.
  • On the other hand, DiNardo isn’t sure whether the pope’s example has moved the needle in terms of Catholic opinion at the grassroots: “I sometimes hear Catholics quoting the latest thing Francis said, but then others say, hey, we’re the ones feeling the crunch of all this, and they’re not always really happy.”
  • In Houston, the pontiff’s Year of Mercy has encouraged “practical ways of living the faith,” including charitable works, such as a parish becoming a Red Cross center, and also hunger for the sacrament of confession.
  • Overall, Francis remains a somewhat controversial figure among some Texas Catholics: “Some people … think the pope’s too vague,” DiNardo said.
  • When he runs into those concerns, DiNardo said he delivers a clear message: “We have to walk with people in difficult situations, but there’s a difference between accompanying people and approving everything they do.”

Born in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1949, DiNardo came of age in a Pittsburgh suburb in the Golden Age of American Catholicism in the 1950s, when the northeastern part of the country was its demographic core.

He entered the seminary in 1967, just after the Second Vatican Council, and after studies in Rome at both the Jesuit-run Gregorian University and also the Augustinian-run institute on patristics, he was ordained in 1977.

Today, DiNardo is based in the American southwest, where the new center of gravity of the Catholic population has likewise shifted, having become the first cardinal from the southern United States in 2007. He was elected vice-president of the bishops’ conference in 2013.

DiNardo spoke to Crux about the U.S. bishops’ forthcoming “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign, set to take place June 21 through July 4, and other matters.

The following are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: A recent poll showed that a majority of Americans side with the Little Sisters of the Poor in their Supreme Court case. Do you read that as opinion moving in your direction?

DiNardo: I have to be honest, I’m not sure that’s true. What I am sure of is that you can’t dislike the Little Sisters of the Poor, it’s just impossible no matter who you are. Because they’ve become the symbol of this [case], because they’re known for it, perhaps it’s causing some people to have second thoughts.

The Little Sisters are the very image of self-negation, and nobody can deny it …it’s a no-brainer. So when people see them caught up in a situation like this, it probably makes them wonder if something hasn’t gone wrong, when a group like the Little Sisters has to go so far to defend their rights.

Whether that means everything is turning around, I don’t know.

If this case were “U.S. Bishops v. Obama Administration” rather than the Little Sisters, you think it would be a different conversation?

People would probably say, this is about religious interests, institutional interests, and so. With the Little Sisters, they’re serving God’s really poor people, including the sick and the elderly, and it’s more clear this isn’t just an institutional fight. Because they’re the ones involved, it makes people think.

What’s your sense of Catholic opinion at the grassroots? Are people being persuaded by the bishops’ emphasis on religious freedom?

I only have anecdotal impressions, and remember that I’m from Texas, from the southwest. People here are very pro-religious liberty. What the climate would be if I lived in a different part of the country, I don’t know. Here, I think our message on religious liberty plays fairly well. We’re very tradition-bound.

In general, this is a very religiously dynamic place. For our Easter vigil this year in Houston, we had 2,300 new Catholics, the vast majority of them catechumens. There’s growth here, and no matter where you are in Texas, the religious dimension of life is taken seriously.

Like everywhere else there’s a wide variety of opinion, but for the most part there’s a widely shared sense here that religious things are okay.

Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter recently wrote that a new religious liberty video produced by the bishops is a “ham-fisted attempt at propaganda,” not doing justice to the complexities of the issues involved in the Little Sisters case and other matters. How do you respond to that criticism?

I think religious freedom is a genuine issue.

For one thing, look at the situation internationally. We know full well that the most intense persecutions of Christians and other minorities today are in the Middle East, in Africa, in parts of Asia. Some time ago, I celebrated a liturgy in our Maronite Catholic church here in Houston, and I met some of the relatives of people who had been killed in an attack on the Syriac Catholic cathedral in Baghdad in 2010.

You can’t meet people like that and come away thinking that talking about religious freedom is somehow “propaganda.”

I also think we have real religious liberty issues here at home. It’s not just the contraception mandates, but it concerns the future of Catholic charities and our other institutions. Increasingly, the government seems to be trying to constrict religious institutions. It’s so coercive. There has to be more leeway, more freedom.

This isn’t a partisan issue, because these questions are going to be with us for a long time no matter who’s in office at any given moment. It’s a cultural challenge, not a political one. We’re dealing with a very strong cultural impulse, which, if it’s not actually hostile, it’s at least opposed to us really exercising our religious liberty.

Do you see new opportunities for the Catholic Church here to support suffering Christians around the world?

For one thing, we have to keep raising the issue. Today I had to give a talk in a parish, a long-standing appointment, and I spoke about the crisis in the Middle East with Christians and other minorities. People just don’t know what’s really going on, so we have to keep hitting it.

We had a partial breakthrough when [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry called what’s going on over there a “genocide.”

I think the Catholic Church here can do best by working with the Holy See, which has been raising this issue for years. We can put the situation on the front-burner in terms of international organizations and countries, trying to get people to join forces to do something about it.

In February Pope Francis was just a few feet away from the border with Texas while he was in Mexico. What’s the fallout from that visit?

It’s more intense in West Texas, especially El Paso. Here, the Mexican communities are still delighted that he came and said what he said. Our local stations covered it, but you know, as the months go by memories fade.

What was reaction in Houston like to the pope’s verbal spat with Donald Trump?

It was certainly reported here, and the people who love Trump by now would say that everything’s okay, while others would say Pope Francis called attention to some big issues that still haven’t been addressed.

Personally, I think it could have some long-term results, in the sense that after the elections the pope’s leadership might help us enact legislation that’s a little more comprehensive, without forgetting about border protection.

Recently Archbishop John Wester in New Mexico expressed concern about anti-immigrant rhetoric in the 2016 campaign. Do you share that?

I would share some of his position. To be honest, I’m not sure how tantamount immigration is going to be in 2016, since the political scene seems so totally unpredictable … you hardly know what’s happening day to day, and so far the prognosticators have all been proved totally wrong.

But if the question is whether there’s a danger that immigration may become part of the political mix in a terrible way, sure.

In Houston, the immigration question more or less automatically leads into the issue of human trafficking, because it’s such a huge city for trafficking. I wish I had a good answer to it. There have been some local efforts to deal with it, but probably the federal side will have to pay more attention.

We’ve launched some ecumenical initiatives among the church, but it’s very difficult because you can’t always get to where people are. It’s a more intense form of what happens with so many in the immigrant community, which is that people are hidden.

Pope Francis is known for being pro-immigrant. Is there a “Francis effect” on Catholic opinion about immigration in Texas?

That’s a very good question, and I have to say that I don’t know. I sometimes hear Catholics quoting the latest thing Francis has said, but then others say, hey, we’re the ones feeling the crunch of all this, and they’re not always really happy.

What’s the experience been in Houston of the pope’s Year of Mercy?

It’s been very good, although I have to fall back on anecdotal impressions.

During Holy Week, we did the whole “leave the lights on” thing for the sacrament of reconciliation, and we had enormous numbers of people coming. In all honesty, our diocese never lost the sacrament of reconciliation, but it was especially strong.

One of our priests, who has a large, massive parish, heard confessions until 2:30 in the morning. He sent me a joking note afterwards saying, “there is no more sin in my parish, because everyone went to confession!”

We’ve seen that all over the diocese. The mercy theme is being received very, very well.

The pope has asked that every diocese create a permanent memorial to the Year of Mercy in the form of a new school, or social service center, or hospital. Is Houston doing something along those lines?

We have a parish seriously looking into it. The idea is to create an outreach center for all kinds of people – the poor, immigrants, the hungry, people in need of counseling, and so on. The pastor just sent me a note, and they’re trying to get it done by the end of the year.

As I go around doing confirmations, I find a lot of people, both young and old, are emphasizing both the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy. For instance, recently we’ve been talking about how we bury the dead and show respect for those who have died. We also sponsored an art contest under the title of “Merciful Like the Father,” and we’re announcing the winners in May. Also, lots of parishes have been mobilizing to help victims of the recent floods, one even became a Red Cross center.

I think what the pope has done is to stimulate some very practical ways of living aspects of the faith that are very important … many people in parishes are doing the things they would normally do, but with a new attention to the dimension of mercy.

Overall, how are Texans responding to Pope Francis?

I just met with a group of [non-Catholic] pastors and ministers, and I’d say at least 70 percent came up to me to say, “I really like your new pope!”

Of course, not everybody is completely on board. At my talk today, I got a question from a Catholic woman who asked if the pope talks so much about being kind and merciful that he’s confusing people, by suggesting that no matter what they do everything’s okay.

My answer was that what the pope wants is that we’re clear on principles, but we walk with people. Some people hear that, however, and think the pope’s too vague.

I think it’s important for the Church going forward to be understanding of how important our tradition and practice is. We have to walk with people in difficult situations, but there’s a difference between accompanying people and approving everything they do. I think that’s what Pope Francis is trying to tell us.