Catholic leaders launched a nationwide campaign challenging the Obama administration's health policies with a Mass at Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption on Thursday evening, filling the 200-year-old stone structure with supporters.
The standing-room-only crowd stood and applauded when Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, leader of the Roman Catholic bishops' "Fortnight for Freedom" initiative, entered.
A separate crowd of people outside, most of them Catholic, held signs protesting the event, one of which read, "Bishops! YOU DON'T SPEAK FOR ME! Freedom For All!"
In his homily, Lori mainly touched on the major theme of the two-week effort: that President Barack Obama's policies are "morally objectionable" and an attack on religious freedom. The campaign focuses on a policy requiring religious institutions to offer birth control and other reproductive health care in employee health plans.
"On Aug. 1, less than six weeks from now, the Health and Human Services mandate will go into effect. This will force conscientious private employers to violate their consciences by funding and facilitating through their employee health insurance plans reproductive 'services' that are morally objectionable," Lori said, according to the text of his remarks released earlier in the day.
"Religious freedom includes the freedom of individuals to act in accord with their faith but also the freedom of church institutions to act in according with their teachings and to serve as a buffer between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual conscience."
Outside the Basilica, about 40 people protested Lori's message, saying variously it is too political a stand for the church or that it clashes with their beliefs about women's or minority rights.
"We love the church, but we hate the politics," said James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, a Washington-based group that pushes for Catholic commitment to social issues. "We think that the decision to have a 'Fortnight for Freedom' really is a political attack on President Obama, and it doesn't reflect the moral priorities of Catholics sitting in the pews, who are really more concerned about bread-and-butter issues."
The "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign was developed after the Department of Health and Human Services mandated reproductive health care opposed by the church.
Polls show many Catholics support the mandate and don't feel threatened by it. But a backlash arose, and protests against the requirement were organized around the country.
In his homily, Lori asked Catholics to oppose the mandate and others like it, urging them to take on the role of being an "obstacle" to what he described as the nation's increasing secularization.
Lori's words follow similar messages issued by Catholic bishops in recent months, but they carry some added weight. As archbishop of Baltimore, a city considered to be the birthplace of American Catholicism, and as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, the outspoken Lori commands attention in Catholic circles, much like his predecessor, Cardinal Edwin F. O'Brien, who was at the Mass.
O'Brien, who handed the oldest bishop's cross in the nation to Lori after being called to Rome this year, had also railed against Obama-era health policies, particularly the mandate that religious institutions offer birth control coverage to employees through insurance plans.
"We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law," O'Brien wrote in a letter in February. "The Administration has cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our nation's first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty."
Lori echoed O'Brien in his homily at the Basilica on Thursday.
"The freedom of conscientious and like-minded individuals to conduct such businesses in accord with the teaching of the Church now hangs in the balance," Lori said in the advance text of his statements.
Michael Ruck, a parishioner at the Basilica from Hunt Valley, called the Mass "a real indication of how the Catholic Church supports these issues of religious freedom," and said he was happy Baltimore was the site of the campaign's launch.
"The fact it is right here in Baltimore, America's first cathedral, a symbol of religious freedom, is just so appropriate," he said.
According to recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that researches religious values in public life, about 57 percent of American Catholics do not feel their religious freedom is being threatened, and 65 percent believe publicly held corporations should be held to the mandates of the Obama administration's health reform law.
Protesters outside the Basilica said they wanted to show that opposition to the church hierarchy exists.
"I just think they are wasting their energies and resources on an issue that does not really speak to the issues in people's lives," said Nancy Assero, a Baltimore resident and parishioner of St. Francis of Assisi parish in the city's Mayfield neighborhood. "I could walk into any church in the country, and I would bet my [retirement plan] that 90 percent of the women there have practiced contraception."
Salt, of Catholics United, said his group is made up of Democrats and Republicans, and skews toward younger Catholics but has many older members as well. The group wants to see Catholic bishops focus on "justice and the common good," issues that "most American Catholics are talking about at the dinner table."
The bishops' decision to focus on "sexual politics" shows "just how out of touch they are with most American Catholics," Salt said.
"This is embarrassing," he said of the bishops' campaign. "We want the leadership of the church to focus on what matters, not on these manufactured controversies."
Phil Attey, executive director of the group Catholics for Equality, which supports equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Catholic Church, said the bishops' initiative is "election-year posturing."
"We need pastors, not politicians," he said. "Their political antics are hurting the church."
The "Fortnight for Freedom" campaign continues through July 4, when a closing liturgy will be celebrated by Cardinal Donald Wuerl at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.
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