U.S. bishops voted last week to strengthen their committee on religious liberty. What might this vote mean for the bishops’ engagement with LGBT rights?
Meeting in Indianapolis, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted 132-53 to make their Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty a permanent structure. Crux reported:
“Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, committee chairman, said the need for the body stretches beyond the specific legal and public policy issues challenging religious freedom that continue to emerge.
“Lori expressed hope that the committee’s work would help ‘plant the seeds of a movement for religious freedom, which will take years of watering and weeding in order for it to grow, to grow strong and to bear fruit.'”
Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter detailed the floor debate over the question of a permanent religious liberty committee. He said that listening to Archbishop Lori’s oft-repeated allegation that expanded LGBT rights threaten religious liberty which expanded LGBT rights bring with them was like “entering a time warp.” Winters questioned “whether the histrionic approach to the issue is truthful or helpful.”
Several bishops vocally challenged making the Committee a permanent one. Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark and Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, both Francis appointees, warned sharply against continuing to press the religious liberty agenda while at the same time that the USCCB leadership was proposing to close down the working group on immigration. Winters reported further:
“Tobin and other bishops also questioned the funding of the work of the religious liberty committee: The proposal to make the committee permanent was stated to be budget-neutral and it was pointed out that funding sources dry up for a variety of reasons. Archbishop William Lori did his best to assure his colleagues that the funding was solid and not going anywhere: We know the Knights of Columbus have donated $250,000 to the committee since its inception, and Lori is the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights. But he won’t be forever, and his pal Carl Anderson won’t be Supreme Knight forever, either.”
(Note: The National Catholic Reporter recently published an in-depth analysis of the Knights’ spending. You can read Bondings 2.0’s coverage of how that funding impacts LGBT issues by clicking here.)
The Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty has spearheaded U.S. bishops’ opposition to LGBT and reproductive rights in recent years. A main part of their program has been the USCCB’s annual Fortnight for Freedom, which begins today and runs until July 4th. In April, the USCCB supported the so-called “Inclusion Act,” a federal bill that would allow religiously-affiliated social service providers to discriminate against LGBT people. They have long opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), defending what they understand to be “just” discrimination. And they have acted thus despite the fact a majority of U.S. Catholics oppose religious exemptions from LGBT non-discrimination protections.
Since Pope Francis’ election, many Catholics and observers have wondered if and when the pope’s vision for the church would be realized in the U.S. episcopacy. There has been little movement to this point; indeed, the bishops’ notably stuck to their conservative, anti-LGBT priorities in 2014 and 2015. But the Indianapolis meeting may finally reveal changes. Winters said, “the tide is turning and the ice cracking in the conservative chokehold of the conference.” He explained:
“The turning of the tide was obvious in larger ways, too. In 2016, the bishops overwhelmingly adopted with only a handful of negative votes a strategic plan that was little different from the previous one, despite requests that the new strategic plan better address the changing focus of Pope Francis. The one major change on the strategic plan? They made religious liberty one of their five areas of special concern. Wednesday, however, 53 bishops voted not to make the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty a standing committee. That was insufficient to defeat the proposal, but it showed that Team Francis is not simply going to sit quietly and go along.”
There are genuine attacks on religious liberty in our world. Even in the United States, Muslims and other non-Christians face increasing assaults on their civil rights and their personal safety. Catholics are right to be concerned about these injustices, and to seek recourse in such a way that the religious rights of all people are defended.
The U.S. bishops’ work on religious liberty so far have given little indication that they are concerned about attacks on people of other faiths. Religious liberty has become a nearly empty term when used by them, a tactic in their strategy to undermine LGBT civil rights. Hopefully, in Winters’ term, “Team Francis” bishops will reclaim real religious liberty as the bishops let go of their partisan anti-LGBT agenda that has been all too present in recent years.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, June 21, 2017