The ability to operate ministries free from government interference is one of the most important factors in serving the impoverished and vulnerable through charitable services, a prominent U.S. bishop has said.

The two-week period from June 21-July 4 marks the third annual Fortnight for Freedom, a time for prayer and education on modern threats to religious liberty both at home and abroad. Announced by the U.S. bishops, the fortnight will begin with an opening Mass at the Baltimore Basilica on June 21 at 5:30 p.m., and conclude with a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on July 4 at noon. The faithful are encouraged to attend both events, as well as local diocesan initiatives. CNA reporter Matt Hadro conducted an exclusive interview with Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ ad hoc religious liberty committee, and who will be main celebrant at the opening fortnight Mass. The transcript of the interview is below. The text has been edited for clarity. You recently stated that the upcoming Fortnight for Freedom would focus on the Church serving the poor and vulnerable; why was this particular focus chosen for the 2014 fortnight? Well certainly this theme is very much in accord with the direction Pope Francis is giving our Church. But I think it also goes very much to the heart of the struggle we’re having with regard to religious freedom. And it’s this. People are tending to say religious freedom is limited to freedom of worship, but then when you begin to serve the common good and the poor and the marginalized with charitable and social services, then you sort of have to check your convictions at the Church door and you have to sort of play by secular rules. For example, the HHS mandate is saying to Catholic Charities well you have to entangle yourself one way or another in providing, let’s say, abortifacient drugs or sterilizations in your health care plans for your Catholic Charities employers. Or it’s saying to Catholic Charities, especially at the state level, for your adoption and foster care to be licensed, you have to agree to place children with same-sex couples. And we say wait a minute, we have real difficulty with contraception and sterilization, and we certainly believe in traditional marriage as a matter of faith. And those people are saying to us well in that case, maybe you shouldn’t be out in the public square serving the needs of other people. So you see, it goes to the heart of religious freedom. Not just freedom to worship in a church but freedom to be a Catholic in the public life by serving the poor? Yes. The freedom to bring our religious convictions to bear on the kinds of services we provide to those who are in need. Pope Benedict said that the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments are inseparable from service to the poor. After the fortnight is over, what is the most important action the lay faithful can undertake to ensure it has a lasting effect and success? Well first of all I think restoring religious freedom is a long-term, multi-generational task. It’s a lot like pro-life, it probably won’t happen overnight because there’s very powerful legal, governmental, and societal forces that are changing the way religious liberty is being regarded. So I think there’s a lot of work to do in this long-term. But I think the whole point of the fortnight is that people will continue to pray about it and pray for the restoration of religious freedom, and secondly, they will continue to be informed about it, what religious freedom is, how it is under attack, and thirdly, that they’re going to be active in contacting their elected officials and expressing themselves. Because if we’re quiet about this, religious freedom will continue to be eroded. Do you see this situation, then, as getting worse before it could get better? I think that the challenges to religious freedom have intensified over the past years, and indeed I think they will continue to intensify. On the other side of the ledger, I think there is more awareness about the need to defend religious liberty than there was before. What would you say, then, are the historical roots of this secularism that you’ve warned of that threatens religious liberty? I don’t know that I could get you all the way back, but I could speak more recently. I think back in the 1940s there were Court decisions that tended to be a little bit unfriendly to religious freedom. It didn’t appear to be much of a challenge at the time. More recently, in the 90s, the early 90s, there was the Smith decision. And that certainly has been a great challenge to us. But I think what’s basically been happening probably for most of my lifetime has been the advance of secularism, the advance of promoting a style of life that proceeds as if God did not exist. And I think you see that very much in the world of culture, of entertainment, in how people spend their leisure time. And you also see it reflected now in the law, because many times the law is the arbiter of the culture. In terms of the sea-change of culture, would there be one thing that really drove that? Say, the allowance of birth control? Or would that just be kind of a number of factors? I think it’s multiple factors. I think secularism has deep roots, probably going back to the Enlightenment. I think these are deep roots, and they are manifesting very bitter fruit at the moment.   Now, on that point, a Gallup poll from two years ago showed that a majority of U.S. Catholics believe birth control to be “morally acceptable,” despite being directly contrary to Church teaching. What must be done to change the minds and hearts of these Catholics? First of all, I think we have to proclaim the Gospel joyfully. I think Pope Francis is helping us see how to do this. Very often, even people who self-identify as Catholics have never really been fully evangelized, and have never really had that life-changing encounter with the person of Christ. Once you fall in love with Christ and He has touched you in the very depth of your heart, then what the Church believes and teaches begins to make sense. It begins to be seen not as a lot of harsh rules, but rather as a response of self-giving love. And that is how we need to situate what the Church teaches about every vocation, whether it’s celibacy or marital chastity, or our duty to love our neighbor and to bring the Gospel to the margins. It’s all part of a piece.   Would there be any specific ways for many of the lay faithful to proclaim the Gospel? I guess there are a number of specific ways, say bringing a neighbor into the Church, perhaps? I think that the dioceses and parishes have to make evangelization their very first and most important priority. And it’s very important…that the priests assemble a team of people that are committed, intentional disciples who are spreading the faith and inviting others to discipleship in our parishes. And dioceses have to support this very strongly as a big priority. Coupling this with excellent family life programs and marriage preparation programs. And in the meantime, while that’s going on, we recognize if we were a ship, that there’s a fire in the engine room. And that’s the attacks on religious freedom. So we have to do what we can to put that fire out. And so it isn’t like we have the luxury of sequencing all of this according to our own timetable. We have to do all of these things at the same time. And there are a lot of people that may not fully understand or accept the Church’s teaching, but who also understand that it’s not for the government to decide what the Church ought to teach or believe. A lot of people understand that.   Pope Leo XIII spoke of the heresy of Americanism, basically kind of a radical individualism, where Americans had more allegiance to their own country than they did to Rome? Do you see that as having kind of a big play in what’s going on here? No, I think it’s different today. Today there are so many people who can’t even tell you who the vice president is or who their senator is or what the first amendment is. This is a very different thing than an overweening loyalty to one’s country. I think what we’re dealing with is more apathy and lack of knowledge. And so we have kind of a two-fold task. One is to convey the Church’s teaching on religious freedom as a fundamental part of human life and dignity, and it goes along with our teaching on life and marriage. And the other one is to help people be good citizens, to understand in an authentic way the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms in our country, the God-given freedoms. They are meant to be constitutionally-guaranteed. And so we have a kind of a dual catechetical and educational project to engage in.