Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, may well be the nicest and most likeable guy to hold a senior leadership position in the Catholic Church. That “nice guy” factor helps explain why he was elected to lead the U.S. bishops from 2013 to 2016, and also why he now serves as the head of the bishops’ permanent Committee for Religious Liberty.
Each year since 2012, the bishops have dedicated a special period of time to celebrate the value of religious freedom at home and abroad. For the first five years, it was known as the “Fortnight for Freedom,” and ran June 21-July 4. For this year, it’s been rechristened as “Religious Freedom Week” and runs for just one week, June 22-29, though always with July 4 in view.
Among other things, Kurtz said this year he wants to focus on reaching out to youth — because, he said, while “people over 60 years of age kind of get it,” nonetheless “younger people today still have to be convinced that there’s really a problem.”
Kurtz spoke with Crux April 27 about his committee, anti-Christian persecution abroad, and the aims of Religious Freedom Week. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Crux: What are your hopes for this new permanent committee?
Kurtz: First of all, the precious gift of religious freedom, or religious liberty, is something we can never take for granted. Basically, I would say there are really two major areas. One is when someone is trying to witness to the faith, legitimately, or serve other people with integrity, we want to be there to help them, to defend it, especially if there are difficulties with governmental regulations or laws. That will always be a bit of our bread and butter.
In that regard, our committee is really second fiddle. If the issue is a nurse who refuses to participate in an abortion, we want to help the Pro-Life Committee on that. If it’s migration, and the rights and dignity of people are being challenged, we want to be second fiddle in that regard too.
Secondly, we’re really concerned about language. I think what the research is showing us is that people over 60 years of age kind of get it. They understand that if a precious gift is challenged, you need to protect it and you need to find ways to speak up for it.
Younger people today, however, I think, still have to be convinced that there’s really a problem. I need to learn more about that, and so does our committee. When I speak to our bishops in public session in June, that’s an area I would like to be able to address with them … not so much giving answers, but just acknowledging the reality that there’s an unevenness even within the Catholic community regarding what exactly religious liberty is, and are these challenges real? That’s going to be part of our work.
The committee began with a focus on the domestic situation, but in recent years has taken on a greater focus on anti-Christian persecution abroad as well. Can you talk about that?
You’re right. The early days of the committee were almost completely absorbed by helping people such as the Little Sisters of the Poor defend themselves against what we thought was an unfair mandate as part of the HHS regulations [for health care reform]. Even domestically, now I think we’re seeing a broader view. We’re looking at issues regarding pro-life, migration, and across the board in health care.
You’re correct also that we’re looking at the international arena. This is something that Pope Francis, when he came to the United States and spoke as you recall at the White House, spoke about … he spoke about religious liberty, and he spoke about both the domestic and the international levels. I’m realty grateful that Archbishop [Timothy] Broglio is a member of our committee, who’s now the chair for international peace and justice.
The plight of people internationally [who suffer for their faith] is something that kind of gets lost, even in our news cycles. It gets mentioned … I just read today about some terrible things that happened in Nigeria, with 17 people, including two priests, who were killed, and what was the governmental response?
We need to be part of that. You’ve been in the leadership of that, the Knights of Columbus have been in the leadership of that, and our committee is going to need to be able to play second fiddle to the Committee on International Justice and Peace to make sure this is on the front burner as we talk to people throughout the United States.
Your annual observance, which runs June 21 to July 4, was formerly known as the “Fortnight for Freedom” but has been rechristened as “Religious Freedom Week.” Can you talk about that transition?
People who were familiar with Shakespeare understood “fortnight” and things like that, but for the average person I’m not sure it’s in common parlance. What we’re thinking is, obviously it’s leading up to the 4th of July. That’s great, because we’re a nation that thinks about independence, that thinks about liberty, around that time, within our culture. Why not use that catechetically?
We have the feast of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, we have the nativity of St. John the Baptist, and of course we have Sts. Peter and Paul. So, we have great liturgical feasts at that time. Here’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to highlight each day in terms of a particular area. We’re learning, because Catholic Schools Week, Catholic Migration Week, have all been very successful in focusing on a week-long area and having a theme for each day, so that’s what we’re going to do.
Each day will involve education, a reflection, and then prayer and action. I think you’re going to be pleased as you see that material on it. One day will focus on migration, one day will focus on international affairs, another will of course be on health care, another on foster care, we’ll have a day on education, and then there will be a generic day. I know Bishop [Robert] Barron [auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and founder of the “Word on Fire” ministry] will be doing a day on evangelization and catechesis.
We have a committee that’s at work, and for these seven days we’ll have videos and other resources. We’ll also have a common flyer that’s going to fit well into a parish bulletin as well as our diocesan newspapers.
If you’re an average Mass-going Catholic and you’d like to see your parish plug into Religious Freedom Week, what’s the most practical thing to do?
I think the first thing to do is to have a computer, because I think accessing our resources is important. I think the second thing is to begin with where your passion is. When you look at the seven days, there will be something you already know and are committed to, so go with that because we’re asking for concrete actions.
Then, like I like to say to people here in the Archdiocese of Louisville, deepen and expand that passion. Look at at least one other issue that’s very, very important and learn a little bit that week about that issue.
Finally, allow this to be an exercise in which we don’t take for granted the precious gift of religious freedom. It’s a freedom to serve – remember what our theme is, ‘Serving others in God’s love.’ The focus is on serving other people in God’s love. It’s not a privilege to be not shared. It’s meant to have us witness and go out of ourselves, something Pope Francis is saying over and over again.
Perhaps one thing people can broaden this year is their understanding of anti-Christian persecution around the world, because whatever our struggles here may be, there are hundreds of thousands of Christians around the world who literally take their lives in their hands every time they go to church, every time they open a Christian-owned business, and, for that matter, every time they walk down the street.
Let me say this: Thank you for the way in which you’ve carried the banner and have done that consistently over the years. We need to promote the idea of each one of us being involved in protecting religious liberty.