The Fortnight for Freedom, a series of public activities sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposing infringements on religious freedom, concluded on July 4. The immediate impact of the campaign, however, remains unclear. Reportedly only some 70 of the nation’s 198 dioceses announced programs and activities for the fortnight. In some, little attention was paid to the effort; in others it was energetically promoted. The campaign did, however, receive a pre-Independence Day gift from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District: the voiding of a Baltimore City ordinance that required pro-life pregnancy centers to post signs indicating they do not provide abortion or contraceptive services. But the chief test of the campaign, the effort to persuade the Obama administration to drop the narrow definition of exempt religious institutions under the Affordable Care Act, remains unsettled.
If the White House perceives the mixed response to the fortnight as cause for hope that it can put its contretemps with the Catholic Church in its rear view mirror, it is badly mistaken. The administration might better turn its attention to other pertinent developments: a lawsuit filed by the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago against the Health and Human Services Department mandate and a statement from the Catholic Health Association that rejected the accommodation offered by the administration and called for a broader religious exemption that would cover Catholic health institutions.
President Obama has often described his brief career as a community organizer in Chicago, a job bankrolled by a consortium of South Side Catholic parishes, as an inspiring, formative experience. And it was the pivotal support of C.H.A.’s president and chief executive officer, Sister Carol Keehan, of the Daughters of Charity, that made possible the president’s Affordable Care Act. When old friends try to tell you something is amiss, it is wise to listen. Indeed the president could, to paraphrase Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., make this problem go away by simply continuing the long-standing practice of allowing Catholic institutions to define themselves.
Preserving religious liberty, a God-given and constitutionally guaranteed freedom, requires the vigorous but measured participation of the church and her leaders. (See Nicholas P. Cafardi, “Politics and the Pulpit,”  in this issue.) That participation takes place across many civic arenas: in town meetings, in community gatherings, on opinion pages and in courthouses, as well as in the halls of Congress and the Oval Office. Americans like to believe their rights as they understand them are absolute, but in fact their practice is periodically redefined by legislative, judicial and even administrative decisions. If the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, then Catholics must be prepared to engage in debate wherever settled agreement on our rights is at risk of shifting.
The mistake of the religious liberty campaign has been to personalize the problem, assigning singular blame to President Obama. It has also inflated the controversy by trying to make a variety of different local, state and national problems appear to be a vast conspiracy. Its hyperbolic rhetoric, while it charges up “true believers,” hardens the hearts of adversaries and alarms people in the middle. It is possible that in overplaying its hand, the campaign, its agents and allies have diminished their ability to share in shaping policy.
Making public policy is a political process, with back-and-forth, give-and-take. For 40 years, anti-natalists in Congress and successive administrations worked hard to sustain funding for population control in U.S. foreign aid, as pro-life advocates fought to ban it. In 1984 President Ronald Reagan put an end to funding. The restrictions were rescinded by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and reinstated by President George W. Bush in 2001. Similarly, because of its political volatility, the Hyde Amendment, a rider on federal health appropriations that forbids spending on abortions, requires an annual vote. Many actors in government and outside it influenced those policies. The same is true of the Affordable Care Act. Catholics must continue to work to get religious exemption language right.
In recent years Catholic institutions have made defensible moral compromises to deal with state and local health-insurance mandates. Abroad, other bishops’ conferences have likewise responded to similar secular challenges without apocalyptic appeals. More attention should be paid to preparing creative, alternative responses before the church finds itself saving face by shutting doors, a response a few bishops have threatened. That outcome would be unfair to the millions who have come to rely on church institutions and one surely undesired by President Obama no less than by most bishops.