Q&A With Archbishop Gregory On Religious Liberty
Published: July 5, 2012
As the Fortnight for Freedom began, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory was interviewed about the conflict over religious liberty since a 2012 federal mandate was announced that requires all employers to provide and pay for contraceptives, abortion-inducing medications and sterilizations in health plans for their employees. Catholic entities oppose this mandate in their health care plans as a demand to violate their own teachings and also challenge the government’s narrow definition of a religious entity and lack of protection for individual consciences.
Q. For almost a year the USCCB has been dialoguing with the Obama administration trying to head off this conflict over the definition of what is a religious exempt organization and also trying to find other solutions to this conflict. That resolution hasn’t been reached so far and now we have over 40 lawsuits that have been filed by Catholic institutions. … Do you think it is the most serious conflict that the Church has faced in the United States with the federal government?
A. Certainly within recent history. Because heretofore the federal government—and I think in all of the other previous administrations—they pretty much had a hands-off policy regarding all religious communities, respecting their autonomy, respecting their self-identity. So it’s not just a Catholic-federal government thing. It’s been a respectful acknowledgement on the part of past administrations that religious institutions should be left alone to do the good things that they have done and continue to do for society—educate children, care for the poor, provide medical assistance to the indigent, those things that are very much a part of most religious communities’ constitutional identity … who they are as a religious family.
Q. Why do you think that changed?
A. I think there’s been a shift in societal attitudes regarding religious faith and the importance of religious institutions for the fabric of society. I don’t think that’s an overstatement. We are in a more secularized moment, and because of that, there are people who have forgotten the great and life-giving services that religious institutions and religious structures have done in the history of this nation, from caring for people during medical outbreaks of catastrophic events, to providing housing and care for orphaned children, to educating the poor. There seems to have been an amnesia of all of the positive things that faith communities have provided.
Q. Do you think that there is a possibility yet of some kind of out-of-court solution?
A. I am a man of hope. I have to be. I am the pastor of a very large and very active and very generous community of faith here in the archdiocese so I have to be optimistic that somewhere, somehow, there can be some accommodation that will genuinely recognize the autonomy of religious faith in this area. And again I keep stressing this is not just a Catholic issue. We have become the catalyst because of our size and because of all of the tremendously significant things that the Catholic Church has done in the United States and throughout the world. But we’re not the only ones with a vested interest in this conversation.
Q. There are some Catholics in the archdiocese who are so supportive of the bishops’ position that they would have liked to have seen the Atlanta Archdiocese be in a lawsuit of its own or to be a party to a lawsuit. … Is there any reason that you can share as to why at this time that was not done?
A. It was … a strategic plan … laid out by the law firm that is providing this pro bono that 43 targeted institutions will be able to achieve and provide a workable strategy. … While the archdiocese is not one of the 43, we are completely in accord. … They can handle well these institutions that are in the lawsuits. They are targeted in particular jurisdictions where they hope to receive a favorable rendering of the lawsuit. So it’s not a strategy that’s aided by a pile-on. It’s a strategy that will be most effective by targeting these groups and making them carry the load for the entire Catholic community. And there may be a second wave of lawsuits depending on how things work out. … And the fact that we are not one of the entities doesn’t in any way lessen the support that I have extended publically and in writing supporting this strategy.
Q. On the flip side of that, there are other Catholics who are upset because the U.S. bishops are challenging the administration with such intensity just prior to a presidential election, which they see as putting the weight of the bishops on one side of a partisan political campaign. Regardless of whether the bishops intend this or want this, do you think that that is a danger about the timing of this fight?
A. We didn’t choose the time. The administration chose the time. We didn’t pick the fight, and we didn’t pick the calendar for the fight.
Q. Should Americans who are not Catholic, and maybe not even religious in any way, be concerned about this: the fact that Catholic institutions would be required to provide free services that are contrary to our moral teaching? Why should Americans who are not people of faith or necessarily Catholic people find this something that they have a stake in?
A. First of all, because it touches on the constitutional integrity of our nation. The Constitution says that the government will not interfere with the practice of religion. And this is a challenge to that long-standing constitutional promise. ... Two, many of the people that have been served by these Catholic institutions, schools, hospitals, universities, dioceses, Catholic social service agencies, were non-Catholics. That’s at the heart of this question. … It’s a fact that these agencies, these structures, have never asked, “Are you Catholic and hungry?” “Are you Catholic in need of medical attention?” “Are you Catholic in need of an education?” We just simply say, “Are you hungry? We’ll feed you. Are you sick? We’ll care for you. Do you need a good education? We’ll provide it.” We’ve never in the history of our nation restricted our outreach to simply those of our faith. We’ve cared for everyone who’s approached us with a need. So those people who have been aided and are not Catholic should look back and say, you know, when Grandpa first arrived in this country and he needed medical care and had no monies, he went to a Catholic hospital and he was served. … In this very city … the oldest hospital is Saint Joseph’s, built at a time when there were very, very, very few Catholics, so the overwhelming number of people who were cared for by the Mercy Sisters at Saint Joseph’s were non-Catholics. And we are proud to have provided that.
Q. Have you heard from local Catholics about how they feel about it? Have you gotten overwhelmingly supportive responses? Have you gotten a mixture of responses?
A. It is always a mixture. More supportive because I think the Catholic community sees this as a serious issue. But you know what’s driving this: This isn’t a popularity contest. This isn’t a decision that can be made based on 42 percent in favor and 58 percent against. This is a situation that we feel is part of our identity as a religious family. Jesus says, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in prison and you visited me. And whatever you did for the least of my brethren you did for me.” So this touches on our ability to respond to that Gospel mandate.
Q. One thing that is alarming is the plight of the Catholic business owner. The dioceses and the universities will be protected, but what about these Catholic business owners who really have no clout and will have the least capacity to fight this mandate?
A. We really feel that these are two different issues. One is an issue that challenges the institutional integrity of the Catholic Church. But the second level is a situation where a person’s conscience can be violated. Now, while we haven’t had this institutional challenge before, we have had—and the government has made accommodations for—conscientious objection. Even in time of war, the government has allowed for people who feel that a particular action or a government policy violates their conscience and there have been accommodations. I don’t know if this situation will allow for that, but … we have raised that issue, that the government has allowed in the past for consciences to be respected. But they are two different issues. One is a constitutional issue touching on the integrity of a religious institution to be itself and to follow its own constitutive identity. The other is the tradition of allowing for conscientious objection, which the government, in the past, has made accommodations for on many very, very serious matters. But they can’t be fudged. They can’t be collapsed one into another.
Q. So in a sense there are hoped for two solutions.
Q. In the Fortnight for Freedom, have you asked pastors to do anything in particular?
A. I’ve provided information online so they have all the data. And the Fortnight for Freedom … is really being organized here and across the country in most places by nonpartisan, lay groups who are coming together, generally in an ecumenical environment. … It’s really an ecumenical and an interfaith effort because the challenge is not just to the Catholic Church. The challenge is to any religious community that feels that this requirement—the mandate—violates their freedom to practice their faith. It’s also an American issue. So there may be people at the event—I hope there are—who are not churchgoers or who are not identified with any faith, but they are good Americans and they see the conflict that this mandate provides for our American heritage.
Q. Mary Ann Glendon was here last year speaking at Emory … about the concern that they had in Europe and that she had heard as part of a Vatican body that there were threats to religious liberty now in the most liberal democratic societies and that this was a threat that they never anticipated facing or seeing. They were always thinking of persecuted religious groups in various parts of the world. Suddenly they realized that this was all over the world.
A. Right. We’re moving in that direction. This goes back to one of your first questions and my response … the growing secularism that has chosen, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to ignore or to deny the role of religious faith in human society. That is growing. We have been accustomed, certainly in our generation, to thinking that only in very oppressive regimes that were perhaps overly identified with a particular religion and had intolerance for other people of other faiths, that only in those environments would you see real, severe religious persecution. That people wouldn’t be allowed to practice their faith or worship or even identify themselves as members of a particular faith. Only in those oppressive regimes would you find such violence against religious faith. But what we’re seeing is in some of those nations that have been known for constitutional governments and enlightened political autonomy that they too are now putting strictures that were once only identified with despotic structures.
Q. From the perspective of many ordinary people, it’s becoming a rather isolating experience. Parents … feel more and more they cannot find reflected in the world around them, in the culture around them, what they would like their kids to see, what they would like their kids to be exposed to.
A. Sure. In the not too distant past … media, entertainment, television, those programs that were aired five days a week, they almost all ended by, we’ll see you on Monday and remember to worship in a church or a synagogue of your choice. In other words, even the secular world, the entertainment world, gave respect and homage to the fact that we were a religious people and urged us to worship in the church or synagogue of your choice. That’s gone. Not only is it absent, but even the opposite is there. Communications are urging people to leave their faith, to abandon their faith. That would have been unthinkable a generation ago. And being agnostic or being atheist is not new. Throughout human history we have had agnostics and atheists, and people of no faith or doubters. So it’s not like a new movement has come on scene, but certainly an intolerance and a hostility that would have been unheard of a generation ago.
Q. Recently all the bishops were here. What was the overall tone or sense of mood of the bishops? Do they feel that the effort that they have expended so strenuously for the last three or four months, there is a groundswell coming back in support or do you feel people are still not wakening to it?
A. First of all, the spirit among the bishops is resolve—that we are in this for the long haul. This is not something we can negotiate away, although we continue talking with people of good will and certainly hoping that some kind of accommodation that is truly respectful of our identity will be made. I think we want our people to be informed, which is one of the reasons we are doing the Fortnight for Freedom. We want our people to be knowledgeable. We want our people to pray for this. This is a serious topic. This is an overarching issue that touches not just Catholics, but as I keep repeating, it touches all people of faith and those of no particular professed faith but with a great love for our country. But we also realize that there are other issues that are out there. The economy is in an incredibly depressed condition and many people are very, very directly and negatively impacted by the economy. The questions of the rights of those without documents—that are here without proper documentation—those are issues that we want our people to be aware of. The issue of respect for human life. Is it possible that we began down this long road of secularism when we decided that human life was expendable? And that we’ve just taken one step after another down that same path, which has now reached this plateau? And what would be the next plateau? I don’t know. I shudder to think about it.
Q. Do you feel there is a need to re-present the Church’s teachings on marriage and openness to life? It is ironic that this conflict is specifically over contraception, sterilization. … The opinions people have on those topics have obscured the religious liberty topic. But on the other hand they have surfaced again how polarized people are on that.
A. We have to stay focused on (the religious liberty) issue because this is the issue of greatest significance at this moment. It is not unrelated to other issues. But it can’t be collapsed into other issues. I bristle when I hear people say, well, it’s just the contraception. No, the issue and the focus is on the violation of our religious freedom. That’s number one.
Now, you say, is it a time to re-educate and re-catechize our people? I think that is really the intention of the New Evangelization. Because sad to say, we have not done a sufficient job of forming and shaping and teaching our people the full panoply of our religious heritage.
Now I am sure there are as many answers as to why we haven’t done a good job as there are Catholics in the pew. But one of the intents of the New Evangelization is to re-educate, re-form, re-shape the hearts and minds of Catholics so that there is a deeper and more pervasive appreciation of the teachings and the traditions of our church.
Q. At the bishops’ meeting, there was talk of naming a spokesperson for the USCCB. Did that idea receive broad support?
A. I think it is still in the process. I think there were a number of bishops who spoke in favor of it and I think it is a good idea because to be perfectly honest, we, at the bishops (conference), have to do a much better job of communicating the message of the Church, the truth, the teachings of the Church, the Catholic faith. And in order to do that we have to do it in the environment in which we live, which is instantaneous information, which is cyberspace. We live in a different moment in time with the capacity to say things that flash around the world instantly. And we have to be able to have someone out there who can take on this new Areopagus, this new field of communications. But I did raise, and I raise again, that person has to have the support of the body of bishops. That person cannot be shot down. There has to be a certain trust and confidence and security in that individual, which does not compromise a bishop’s responsibility to the threefold munera: teaching, governing and sanctifying in his own diocese and for the life of the church. But we have to learn how to play in a different environment and the different environment is instantaneous and open communication.
Q. Do you feel there is anything more your people here can do to assist in this religious liberty fight?
A. I would like them, first of all, to pray. That’s what we do, we do well, and we do need God’s guidance in this. I would like them to stay informed so that they are aware of what’s going on: not just a superficial awareness but an in-depth awareness of the real stakes that are out there. And I’d like them to lobby their elected officials, to make sure that they communicate their concerns directly to their elected officials. So prayer, knowledge and activism.