Attorney General William Barr warned of “a new orthodoxy that is actively hostile to religion” in his remarks to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Wednesday.
Speaking on the separation of Church and state, Barr said that “militant secularists have long seized on that slogan” to try to move religion out of the public square and out of conversations on the common good. They are replacing religion “with a new orthodoxy that is actively hostile to religion” which, he said, has resulted in “urban violence,” drug abuse, and broken families.
Barr addressed the annual event, held virtually in 2020, as he accepted its Christifideles Laici Award.
“Separation of church and state does not mean—and never did mean—separation of religion and civics,” said Barr, as he insisted Catholics should be more involved in public life through advocating for religious freedom.
It is “never too late” to work in God’s vineyard, he said.
Barr addressed the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast (NCPB) on Wednesday through a pre-recorded video. The event is an annual gathering of Catholic leaders held in Washington, D.C., begun in 2004 to promote Pope John Paul II’s call for the New Evangelization.
Pope Francis sent a greeting to the event through the apostolic nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Christopher Pierre.
“Knowing the difficulties the nation is facing in the midst of civil unrest, racial tension, political polarization, and the COVID-19 pandemic,” Pierre said, “it is certainly hoped that pausing for prayer and invoking the divine mercy of God will lead to healing, reconciliation, and spiritual renewal.”
The archbishop encouraged listeners to “enter deeply into prayer” and “beseech the Eternal Father for an outpouring of grace that will lead to happiness and victory” in the present challenges, “according to His will and His plan.”
President Donald Trump was the second sitting president to address the gathering on Wednesday; President George W. Bush, a Methodist, attended the prayer breakfast each year from 2005 until 2008. Vice President Mike Pence, a baptized Catholic who later identified as an “Evangelical Catholic,” also addressed the event in 2017.
Trump announced at the breakfast plans to sign a “Born-Alive” executive order to ensure that babies surviving abortions get needed medical care.
“Our nation is strong because of Catholics and all people of faith,” the president said, adding that “every child, born and unborn, is made in the holy image of God.”
Bishop Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, delivered the keynote address.
Barron pointed to two historical figures, the legacies of which are “under attack” today, Thomas Jefferson and St. Junípero Serra, and warned against the tendency to “privatize religion.”
“A privatized religion is bad for religion, it’s bad for democracy,” he said, calling on Catholics to “follow the promptings of the Second Vatican Council” and bring their faith into the public arena.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, also addressed the gathering, noting that the pandemic had affected the Christians in the Holy Land. “Our Holy Sites lie empty” and local families “now struggle to feed their families,” he said.
NCPB board member Mark Randall stated at the outset that “our only agenda is prayer.” The event was originally scheduled for March, but, because of the pandemic, was rescheduled to Wednesday, prompting media focus on the participation of political figures, including Trump and Barr, six weeks before the 2020 presidential election.
Neither Barr’s remarks nor Trump’s made mention of the election itself.
Board member Leonard Leo introduced both Trump and Barr on Wednesday at the non-partisan event.
Trump, he said, has “fiercely defended the culture of life” and “more than any other president in my lifetime, and he’s done so much more to embrace policies that reflect the morals, teachings, and objectives of our faith.” He cited religious freedom and pro-life protections of the administration.
Leo praised Barr’s “integrity,” “honesty,” “humility,” and “sincere and wise counsel” before Barr was honored with the Christifideles Laici Award. Named for Pope St. John Paul II’s 1988 exhortation on the lay vocation, the award honors lay Catholics who promote the New Evangelization and the Church’s mission in their life and work.
Barr, who also served as the attorney general from 1991-93 in the George H.W. Bush administration, is Catholic. He has been criticized by some Catholics - including the bishops’ conference - for resuming executions of federal death row inmates, ending a nearly two-decade moratorium on the federal use of the death penalty.
On Tuesday, the day before Barr was to be honored, the chairs of the pro-life and domestic justice committees of the U.S. bishops’ conference condemned two federal executions scheduled for later this week.
“We say to President Trump and Attorney General Barr: Enough. Stop these executions,” Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City and Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City .
Archbishop Charles Chaput, who retired as Archbishop of Philadelphia this year, was scheduled to address the prayer breakfast in March but was “unavailable” for the Sept. 23 event, communications staff for the event told CNA.
Chaput’s prepared remarks were published by the journal First Things on Monday. Chaput acknowledged in those remarks “many challenges” that face Catholics in the U.S., from within and without the Church.
“But don’t be fooled. God never loses,” he wrote. “And his Church can never lose when we, as her sons and daughters, remember our history, our Christian identity, and our mission to speak God’s truth with love.”
Regarding the honor given to Barr, Chaput’s remarks said: “Amen.”
“Throughout my life, the men and women I’ve most admired have all had the same qualities: a thinking Catholic brain, a character of substance, and a moral spine. General Barr has all three,” he said. “As an added bonus, he’s disliked by all the right people. I want to thank the various and interesting critics of General Barr for confirming me in that judgment.”
The conferral of the award on Barr was criticized by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said Wednesday she was “expressing dismay” that Barr was being honored. Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the lobbying group Network, also criticized the recognition of Barr. Campbell, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last month, told CNA ahead of the convention that the question of abortion’s legality was “above her pay grade.”
Activist group Faithful America said it gathered more than 22,000 signatures protesting Barr’s award.
The group has previously run petition campaigns against Christian groups it sees as “right-wing,” but has also opposed actions of bishops, schools, and churches upholding the Church’s teaching on marriage, claiming those efforts are anti-LGBT.