"We will not fail," Archbishop William Lori declared at the quarterly meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Atlanta on June 13.
Tasked with leading a committee on religious liberty, the Baltimore archbishop's statement wasn't an empty boast but a supreme confidence. It wasn't a predictive assurance about the Obama administration's mandate on health insurance and abortion, or the Supreme Court's upcoming health-care ruling or the November election results but a reminder that his audience has weightier things on its mind: matters of a spiritual nature.
The peachy news out of the meeting was an unprecedented unanimity. While reporters looked for cracks in a rare united front, it was, in fact, one of the bishops most identified with potential discord, Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., who didn't let the meeting close without his adamant insistence that conscience rights be defended.
Chicago's Cardinal Francis George then went on to make one of the more provocative points of the session: "What if we fail?" His question wasn't a crisis of faith but a reminder that the federal government has, in fact, put American employers in the position where they will have to choose whether or not to obey Caesar over God, pay potentially ruinous fines because of their faith, or quit providing services.
The churchgoing Catholic may hear a lot about a New Evangelization in the coming year, and the pope will announce a year of faith in October. Ultimately, it is all about a rebuilding. And it is to be welcomed, precisely because we believe religion to be a vital thing for a flourishing society. Or at least, we used to believe that. Do we still? Will we continue to?
Our engagement in defense of religious freedom will tell the tale to history.
"We protect religious freedom ... because we think that religion is a good thing," Catholic University president John Garvey put it simply, in remarks at the bishops' meeting. "The Pilgrims, Catholics, Quakers and other nonconformists who settled these shores came here because they saw it as their duty to know, love, and serve God, and they wanted a place where they could do that without hindrance."
We're entering a period the bishops have dubbed a Fortnight of Freedom in the run-up to July 4th. It necessarily involves politics, but it's really about much more. The defense of religious liberty requires prayer and witness; education and clarity; prudence and courage -- above all, authenticity.
It can also help us understand how we got to this moment: We lost confidence. Many of us have voluntarily privatized religion, publicly declaring what ought to be our most precious rights as merely fit for pew talk. And we've tolerated the government usurping authorities out of its bounds. But that's not right, and you don't have to be Catholic to see it. You're free not to have religion. But you must be free to live it if you do.
There has always been something off about the Catholic candidates who declare themselves "personally opposed" to abortion but publicly defend the legal choice to end an unborn child's life. And it has to do with integrity.
Whatever the Supreme Court does, whatever happens with various lawsuits, whether or not the Obama administration backs down and rescinds its position, "We have the love of Christ and the truth about the human person," is how Archbishop Lori explained his confidence.
If we believe, we ought to act so convinced. And we must insist that we remain free to do so.