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Pope & US bishops team up to put religious freedom on the political agenda

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 20, 2012

On Thursday, Pope Benedict warned visiting American bishops that religious freedom is being threatened in the United States. By the end of the day, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had issued a statement welcoming the Pope’s remarks and encouraging lay Catholics to become involved in the political battle to preserve freedom of conscience.

That’s a quick response. Almost suspiciously quick.

Sure, the bishops’ conference has a staff capable of turning out a quick news release. And sure, the two bishops who are quoted in yesterday’s public statement (along with a consulting lawyer) are perfectly capable of speaking cogently off-the-cuff. Still, the fact that the statement was prepared, approved, and released within a matter of hours shows that the USCCB immediately recognized the Pope’s statement as a hot topic, and acted accordingly.

There is another explanation, actually. It’s possible that the American bishops had received an alert from Rome, letting them know that the Pope would be making a powerful statement, and they begun preparing their reaction statement even before the Pope’s text was released.

Which is it: fast response, or advance notice? It doesn’t matter, really. The fundamental point is the same: The Pope made a provocative statement, and the USCCB quickly capitalized on it. It’s unusual for the USCCB to respond to a papal address of this sort. But in this case the American bishops saw that the Holy Father was creating an opportunity to bring the question of political freedom to the forefront in American political discussions. So they added their own voice to the discussion. That’s called teamwork.

Keep in mind, too, that in that sobering speech, Pope Benedict mentioned that his fears were based on the reports that he had been receiving from American bishops. So the Pope and the American hierarchy are playing off each other, each calling attention to a problem that both regard as serious. The Pope speaks to the world about the problems he sees in the US; the American bishops speak to their fellow citizens about the need to confront those problems. That’s teamwork too.

The papal address and the USCCB response might have commanded more public attention, if they hadn’t been released on a day when American news headlines were dominated by stories about the Republican hopefuls in the presidential campaign. Those GOP contenders might have helped Church leaders to advance this important cause—and scored a few points on the Obama administration at the same time—if they had found a way to work the issue of religious freedom into their debate Thursday night. But they didn’t. Curious, isn’t it, that even in an election year these politicians did not instantly see the issue as one that they could and should exploit? The US bishops immediately recognized that the Pope’s speech was a hot political topic. The Republican presidential candidates did not. Evidently we lay Catholics have a long way to go—a great deal of work to do—to move the question of religious freedom to the top of the political agenda.


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