The importance of the topic at hand to the Catholic church was clear from the amount of pomp and pageantry on display for a mid-week noon Mass.
A standing-room-only crowd of more than 1,500 Catholics jammed into the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica Wednesday to hear St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, wearing crimson and gold vestments and flanked by his two auxiliary bishops, celebrate a Mass for “Life, Marriage and Religious Liberty.”
Candles were carried, and organ music echoed around the church’s vaulted, tiled ceilings as the Knights of Columbus in full “color corps” regalia — chapeaus and capes and gloves and swords — processed down the cathedral’s center aisle.
In his homily — interrupted frequently by loud applause from the pews — Carlson referenced “this time of great challenge.” Last week was a tough one for the Catholic church. On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage in two cases, a decision Carlson called “astonishing.”
Two days later, the administration of President Barack Obama issued final rules to religious groups for its so-called contraception mandate, which says religiously affiliated institutions, such as hospitals and universities, must include free birth control coverage in their employee health coverage.
Carlson quoted Pope Francis who, speaking about gay marriage in his native Argentina, said, “We are not talking about a simple political battle” but “a destructive pretension against the plan of God ... a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
The archbishop said the role of the Catholic was to understand church teaching and communicate it.
“We cannot accept the culture’s way of thinking,” he said. “It is self-focused — truth is whatever you believe — and often anti-Catholic and anti-human.”
Carlson painted Washington politicians as the enemy of the church. “Maybe they should get out of the Beltway and come to the Heartland to find out how life is really lived,” he said.
For more than a year, the bishops have said the contraception mandate will force Catholics to betray their consciences. On Wednesday, Catholics around the country participated in Masses, prayer services, marches and other events to mark the close of the U.S. bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom,” a campaign protesting the contraception mandate. The “fortnight” began June 21 and ends today.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Friday that the administration had issued final rules “that balance the goal of providing women with coverage for recommended preventive care ... with no cost-sharing, with the goal of respecting the concerns of nonprofit religious organizations that object to contraceptive coverage.”
Then on Tuesday, Obama’s administration announced that it would delay for a year the new health law’s rule that large and medium employers must provide coverage for workers. It was unclear how that change might affect the implementation of the contraception mandate.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement Wednesday that the bishops would “continue defending our rights in Congress and the courts.”
Since the administration announced the contraception rule last year, at least 60 lawsuits have been filed against it, many from religious colleges that do not want to offer staff or students contraception coverage.
The final rules exempt groups designated as a “religious employer” — houses of worship and affiliated religious nonprofits — but private businesses owned by religious employers are not exempt. The rules also call for insurers, or third-party administrators, to provide contraceptive coverage for nonprofit religious organizations that object to the coverage.
Maggie Karner, director of Life Ministries for the St. Louis-based Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said in a statement Wednesday that the church remained opposed to the mandate and continued to “seek exemptions for organizations or individuals who have religious or moral objections.”
“We remain committed to fighting for our First Amendment freedoms until our religious concerns are taken into consideration,” Karner said.
One day earlier, Catholic Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, head of the bishops’ religious liberty committee, addressed reporters at the National Press Club in Washington. Alongside Lori was Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Moore said the contraception mandate had “catalyzed” a coalition of religious leaders that pushed back against the final rules in an open letter titled “Standing Together for Religious Freedom,” saying the rules violate their freedom of conscience.
“The issue here is not contraception or abortion,” Moore said in a statement. “We wouldn’t all agree on those questions ourselves. At issue is the callous disregard our government has shown for the freedom of Americans to exercise their religious convictions.”
Lori said “the underlying issue” with the mandate was not about any specific teaching.
“In fact, other signatories on the letter do not share our view on contraception and probably disagree with us in many other ways,” he said, “but they understand the core religious freedom issue at stake here.”
The St. Louis archdiocese said in a statement Tuesday that it was “in full agreement” with the religious leaders who signed the letter and that Carlson was “in unison” with Lori “when he said the Church would continue to seek relief from courts and from Congress.”
In an interview after Mass Wednesday, Carlson reiterated those exact words, vowing to fight the mandate and continue educating Catholics about their responsibilities:
“This is an opportunity for Catholics to discern what their baptism means. What’s not changing is church teaching.”
Those lessons seemed to have already been learned by those who attended the Mass.
“They’re taking God out of everything, and that’s not right,” Joyce Swaller, 52, of Arnold said. outside the cathedral. “Our country was built on those values.”
Her friend Mary Ann Harper, 70, agreed.
“I’m here for freedom — it’s a priority and it’s being taken away,” she said. “The founding fathers came to this country for religious freedom, and now we’re fighting for it all over again. It’s very sad.”St. Louis Post-Dispatch