Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, 71, head of the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee for Religious Liberty.
Speaking on behalf of the Conference, the archbishop has announced that June 22-29 is “Religious Freedom Week” and has asked Americans to pray and “act in support of religious liberty at home and abroad”. The archbishop went on to explain, “Religious freedom allows the space for people of faith to serve others in God’s love in ministries like education, adoption and foster care, health care, and migration and refugee services. We encourage people of faith to reflect on the importance of religious freedom so that we might have the space to carry out our mission of service and mercy, and we invite everyone to pray for our brothers and sisters whoface intense persecution in other parts of the world.”
Archbishop Kurtz, 71, was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1972. He has served as a pastor and teacher, as well as being active with social services agencies. He became Bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee in 1999, and came to Louisville in 2007. He has had a long involvement with the USCCB, and served as its president 2013-16. He was elected chairman of its Committee for Religious Liberty in 2017.
CWR: What is Religious Freedom Week?
Archbishop Kurtz: It is a week in which we focus on the gift of religious freedom, the first freedom in our nation. We call on our people to pray, reflect and act. Each day people are asked to focus on a different issue, such as migration or education.
In participating, we’re fulfilling our duty that comes from Christ, announcing the Good News. We’re not doing it a single person at a time, but are hoping to inspire a culture. We do not impose our beliefs upon people, but propose a vision to the culture in such areas as family, sexuality and the dignity of the human person.
CWR: From 2012-17, the USCCB asked Catholics to observe a “Fortnight for Freedom.” Why has this been changed to Religious Freedom Week?
Archbishop Kurtz: A fortnight is 14 days, and is a phrase not used in our culture. We also find that focusing on a single week allows us to telescope on particular topics more clearly. When the Fortnight for Freedom began, the particular focus was on how religious organizations could comply with the HHS [Health and Human Services] mandate and be consistent to the teachings of their faith [the HHS mandate forced religious organizations to offer health insurance with coverage for contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization despite being at odds with their beliefs]. We made some significant gains, but the HHS mandate is still tied up in the courts, and has not completely ended.
With Religious Freedom Week, and the years leading up to it, we’ve broadened our focus. We particularly want to reach out to younger people. In general, people age 60 and up understand threats to religious freedom. The millennial generation is not grasping the problem. We need to pick our language carefully, be accurate and convey what religious freedom is and where it is in danger.
CWR: Where do you think religious freedom is in danger?
Archbishop Kurtz: The USCCB has developed eight short videos, about a minute and a half to just over two minutes each, which discuss areas of challenge. Day 4 of Religious Freedom Week, for example, features Archbishop Timothy Broglio talking about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. On Day 5, Bishop Joe Vasquez talks about issues relating to refugees and migrants. On Day 6, we hear from
Archbishop Joseph Naumann, who talks about threats to religious freedom in the area of health care, such as health care providers being coerced into participating in abortion procedures.
CWR: You talked about the significance of the time of year. The 4th of July is coming up, and the week starts on the day the Church celebrates the English martyrs Saints Thomas More and John Fisher.
Archbishop Kurtz: We could have not picked a better time of year. Thomas More and John Fisher are great saints of religious freedom, giving their lives rather than compromising their faith. Their sacrifice has been well documented. We end on June 29, the Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul, the twin pillars of the early Church who spread their faith and suffered martyrdom for Christ.
CWR: What would you like the average Catholic in the parish to do?
Archbishop Kurtz: On each particular day of the week, people can go to the website and click on links in English or Spanish and see a suggested three-fold pattern of prayer, reflection and action. Since the nature of the issues we talk about can change quickly from day to day, we have links to other websites run by people who actively monitor particular areas.
CWR: What impact do you believe the Fortnight for Freedom, now Religious Freedom Week, has had on Catholic parishes and U.S. public policy as a whole?
Archbishop Kurtz: It has been difficult, as we’re swimming upstream in this culture. Some people think religious freedom is the threat! But, I believe we’ve been making positive inroads. I hear people talking more about religious freedom. There have been some instances where public opinion has been on our side, such as the case involving the HHS mandate and the Little Sisters of the Poor.
CWR: What do you see as the role of the USCCB’s Religious Liberty Committee?
Archbishop Kurtz: We look for positive ways to promote the gift of religious freedom. We also respond to potential crises in a thoughtful and human way, educating people about the gift of religious freedom. Our hope is to inspire the culture, and ask people to make room for religious voices in the public square. Religious freedom and faith enrich public life, and a vibrant and robust use of religious freedom is good for America
CWR: One criticism of Religious Freedom Week and Fortnight for Freedom is that they promote a particular political agenda which has little to do with the Church’s mission of the salvation of souls. How would you respond?
Archbishop Kurtz: We’re not promoting a particular political agenda, as our issues and positions span the political spectrum. I also think that looking at the salvation of souls, one at a time, is a limited and mistaken view. Our call as a community is to foster the gift of faith, and to go to heaven not one at a time, but together. Our role is to inspire a culture, including families and schools, so that the individual person will have the support necessary to live out his or her faith.
CWR: Others argue that religious liberty is defensive by nature, asking to be left alone to practice one’s Catholic faith, rather than going on offense, working to pass laws in society that reflect Catholic belief and morality.
Archbishop Kurtz: I suppose there is a danger that religious freedom is taken too narrowly, asking society to merely make room for us. But, what we’re trying to do is inspire the culture. We propose, never impose. We want to support the dignity of the human person consistent with our faith, rather than becoming a Catholic ghetto asking to be left alone. We’re not simply trying to defend when there are attacks, but trying to have a positive influence on the culture.
CWR: June 13-14, you participated in a bishops’ spring assembly in Florida. The most prominently discussed issue was immigration. During the assembly, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark said the nation’s current immigration policy “is consistent with cardiosclerosis,” or a hardening of the American heart. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn said of it, “there is an element of restrictionism, somewhat based on racism.” Bishop Edwin Weisenburger of Tucson floated the idea of “canonical penalties” for those who cooperate with current immigration laws. Did you find such comments unduly harsh to those who disagree with the bishops on immigration policy?
Archbishop Kurtz: There was a context to that meeting, the discussion of the separation of children from their parents at the border. The overall approach that the bishops maintain is that we are to treat people with great dignity and we need to honor the family.
The bishops have called for immigration reform. We have to protect our borders and care for people within our borders, but we believe there is a call to be generous, in rhetoric as well as policies. Some bishops expressed a concern about the harshness of rhetoric and people not being treated with dignity, being referred to as inanimate objects or things to be discarded.
CWR: In your Archdiocese of Louisville, you’re completing the parish discernment process based on your pastoral letter Your Parish: The Body of Christ Alive in Our Midst (www.archlou.org/Parish-discernment). What is this letter about?
Archbishop Kurtz: I issued that letter calling for the renewal of parish life on the Feast of the Holy Family at the end of 2016. Since then, we’ve begun to implement the letter in our parishes, with all taking part. I’ve been pleased by the results.
In the letter I ask our people to look spiritually and theologically at the gift of the parish, and to think about what God might be asking from our parishes. I ask them what they are doing to improve their family lives, reach out in service to their neighbor and deepen their spiritual lives. We’ve had two phases of the implementation of that letter, and we’re going through the third phase now.
CWR: You’ve just ordained five new priests. How is the vocations picture in your diocese?
Archbishop Kurtz: We have 17 seminarians. We always pray for more vocations, so we’re pleased to have five men ordained. Two are from Vietnam, the other three from Kentucky. Our two new Vietnamese priests came to us through an agreement with a bishop in Vietnam; after serving three to five years in Louisville we’ll discern whether it is best that they return to Vietnam or stay in Louisville with us. We’ve accepted a total of six such seminarians.
CWR: And, your archdiocesan pastoral services center now has a solar array to help provide for its electricity needs. Will this lead to significant cost savings for the archdiocese?
Archbishop Kurtz: No, our monthly payments have actually increased due to the new technology. But we weren’t doing it to save money, but to provide for a portion of the archdiocese’s electricity needs through the use of sustainable energy. It was our way to exercise good stewardship of the Earth’s resources, encouraged and fostered by Catholic social teaching and in keeping with Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si. Our rooftop has been fitted with 100 solar panels, which provides for about a third of our energy needs.
CWR: Any other thoughts?
Archbishop Kurtz: Yes. I’m completing my 11th year as Archbishop of Louisville, and previously served eight years as Bishop of Knoxville. That totals 19 years as a bishop in the province of Lousiville. I’ve cherished the opportunity. It’s been my privilege to serve.