In Conversation with the Archdiocese

Most Reverend Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr Speaks

By Tim Walker

Women’s rights and the concept of a woman’s reproductive freedom — rights and freedoms that many take for granted at this point — have suddenly become hot-button issues in the 2012 Presidential election campaigns. Statements and misstatements by various candidates and political pundits on both sides of the issues have spurred debate and created a welcome national dialogue on the subject.

President Barack Obama found himself engulfed in a firestorm of controversy on January 20 of this year, when his administration issued a statement requiring “most health insurance plans to cover preventive services for women including recommended contraceptive services without charging a co-pay, co-insurance or a deductible.” The order continued: “Nonprofit employers who, based on religious beliefs, do not currently provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plan, will be provided an additional year, until August 1, 2013, to comply with the new law.”

The statement drew a strong outcry from the public. Ten days later, the Archbishop of Cincinnati, the Most Reverend Dennis M. Schnurr, made national headlines when, in conjunction with two other Catholic bishops, he released a statement that his diocese would not comply with the mandate. “People of faith,” the statement read in part, “cannot be made second-class citizens.”

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati covers the Southwestern portion of Ohio, including Dayton and Springfield, and is made up of approximately 500,000 Catholics in 230 parishes and 19 counties. The Most Reverend Dennis M. Schnurr has been Archbishop of the Archdiocese since December 21, 2009, when he succeeded Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk upon the latter’s retirement. Prior to coming to Cincinnati, Archbishop Schnurr was appointed the eighth Bishop of Duluth by Pope John Paul II. He took as his Episcopal motto, Quaerite Faciem Domini, or “Seek the Face of the Lord.”

The Most Reverend Archbishop Schnurr was kind enough to answer a few questions recently, via email, for the Dayton City Paper. Here are his responses:

You’ve been actively involved in a variety of ways with various communities in the Archdiocese. What have been some of the most memorable experiences so far?

Since arriving in the Archdiocese a little more than three years ago, I have made it a point to visit our parishes and schools for various events and celebrations. I do this because it is important for me to get to know the Archdiocese and for the people of the Archdiocese to get to know me better.

There are so many experiences that I have enjoyed. The one celebration that takes me to most parishes is the Sacrament of Confirmation. On these occasions, I get to meet and talk with our young people about their journey of faith, I see families coming together to encourage their children and siblings to continue to grow in their faith and I witness parishes joyfully celebrating as a community of faith.

Throughout the Archdiocese, I have participated in youth rallies, parish and school anniversary celebrations, vocation programs, rosary rallies, right-to-life events, pastoral council meetings, priest council meetings, social justice gatherings, etc. All of these are important, and all of these are enjoyable and memorable, because they are the living out of our faith, the celebration of our faith. [Most Reverend Archbishop Schnurr]

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati gets credited with some pretty amazing statistics. Aside from being one of the larger Archdioceses in the country, what qualities do you see in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati that makes it particularly unique?

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is 38th in terms of population among the 195 dioceses and archdioceses in the United States. So we are in the top fifth in size. We also have the seventh largest Catholic school system in the United States. That shows an amazing commitment of our people to Catholic school education.

What I noticed when I arrived here three years ago is that there is a real Catholic identity and real pride in being Catholic in our Archdiocese. For example, in some of our communities, people identify where they live by their parish rather than by their neighborhood. You don’t see that everywhere. [MRAS]

How often do you make it to Dayton, and what are some things you enjoy about the City?

I go to Dayton quite frequently, visiting schools and parishes for all sorts of occasions, such as confirmations, special liturgies, and Archdiocesan meetings and events. I enjoy the beautiful landscape as I drive around by the river and the parks. And, of course, it is always a joy to visit the University of Dayton campus. [MRAS]

What is one of your more memorable experiences from in or around the Dayton area so far?

The rosary rally at the UD Arena the first year that I was in the Archdiocese sticks in my mind. There were thousands of people gathered together in prayer, members of our faith community from throughout the Miami Valley. That was a tremendous witness to the fact that our Church is much more than just the parish, important though that is to Catholic life. [MRAS]

There’s been a lot in the news lately regarding various matters in policy. As a public figure and a representative of the Church, do you feel that President Barack Obama is currently engaged in a “war against religious liberty,” as the Chicago Tribune recently said Catholic Bishops are decrying?

That term has not been used by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or by me. However, certain policies of the Administration do constitute an unconstitutional infringement on religious liberty. [MRAS]

What is your opinion of the recent decision by the President that would have forced Catholic hospitals and colleges to provide coverage for birth control to their employees?

You have understated the situation. The regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would force almost all employers, including Catholic institutions and business owners, to pay for employees’ health coverage that includes abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception, even if they find these services immoral. This is a direct attack on religious liberty. Basically the HHS mandate, even with the so-called “accommodation,” is telling people that, if your faith tells you one thing and the government tells you another, you had better follow the mandate of the government. I have urged people of every faith and no faith to write and tell Congress that this must be changed with the passage of the Right to Freedom of Conscience Act. I’ve also invited people of the Archdiocese to offer up their prayers and fasting this Lent for the intention that these unjust mandates not be implemented. [MRAS]

What is your opinion about the President’s subsequent change to that policy?

The change is purely semantic. The administration’s so-called “accommodation” claims to exempt religious employers by placing the onus of coverage for these services on insurers. But many religious organizations – including the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and its agencies – are self-insured, which apparently means that they would still have to pay for services they find immoral.  Secondly, it is unclear how insurers can be forced to cover these services for “free” while not passing on the cost to the insured.  This would still violate the conscience rights of many employers who do not want to be forced to provide objectionable services for others, such as through their premium payments. [MRAS]

Do you feel that this is/was a labor issue, as opposed to a religious issue? Or perhaps a purely strategic move at a critical time in an election year?

This is unquestionably a religious liberty issue, which makes it a concern for every religious community and anyone who cares about the constitutional rights of American citizens. Speculating on motivations, on the other hand, is not a role for the religious community and I will not do that. [MRAS]

It has been said that, on certain issues, the Obama administration gives too much deference to religious freedom (as opposed to the prevailing opinion that he gives too little). One example would be his policy, which he has allowed to continue unchanged from the Bush administration, that religious organizations that accept federal funding can consider religious affiliation when making employment decisions, a situation that would otherwise be a violation of federal law. Would you care to comment?

We shouldn’t have to give up our First Amendment right to practice our religion when we accept federal funding to help the poor. Be clear about this: That federal funding doesn’t go to the Catholic Church; it goes to help the people we serve – many of whom are not Catholic. We serve them not because they are Catholic but because we are. [MRAS]

Do you believe that, as Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum recently claimed, President Obama has “an overt hostility to faith in America”?

I’m not going to comment on any political candidates in this election or any other. [MRAS]

Many organized religions have recently seen a decline in number.  Can you please comment on the pertinent statistics with regard to the Catholic Church? Also, certain segments of the faithful in the United States feel that “updating” or “modernizing” Catholic doctrine would reverse this trend: for example, allowing women to enter the priesthood or re-establishing the local parish – as opposed to Rome – as the center of Catholic life. Do you have any opinion on this grassroots movement to “Americanize” or “Modernize” the faith?. 

Catholic Church membership worldwide at the end of 2010, the most recent statistic available, was 1.196 billion, up from 1.181 billion the previous year and nearly double the 654 million of 1970. In any case, the Church is not free to change the doctrines that come to us from Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition and the teaching authority of the church in order to be more popular. As Mother Teresa reportedly said, “Jesus does not ask us to be successful; he asks us to be faithful.” Eternal truth cannot be updated. In many ways the local parish is and always will be the center of Catholic life because that is where we worship most often with our fellow believers who, in many cases, are also our friends and neighbors. [MRAS]

Looking towards the future, what are some events in the Archdiocese that seem most exciting?

On Oct. 1 and 2, the Archdiocese will hold a major event at the Dayton Convention Center called “The Summit: Revitalizing the Domestic Church.” It will bring together as many as 500 Archdiocesan, parish and school employees – and some volunteers – to explore the critical issue of families who no longer have Christ at the center. Pope Benedict XVI has said that the new evangelization must begin with the family. “The Summit” will be an opportunity for us to come together in prayer as we commit ourselves to the new evangelization of the families of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. This gathering will be an integral part of the Year of Faith proclaimed by the pope, which begins in October. [MRAS]

Any other plans to visit Dayton in the near future?

So far I am scheduled to be in the Dayton area eight times in April and May for meetings, dinners and confirmations, as well as many events throughout the year. This fall I will be at “The Summit” in Dayton on both days. [MRAS]

If there were one message which you would like each individual Catholic reader of this interview to take away with them, what would it be?

In a world that in many ways is divided by anger, bitterness and misunderstanding, it is important to recall that God created us to know happiness and He tells us how that is possible: When you put Christ at the center of your life, you will find that He is the true source of peace, joy, and the fullness of life. [MRAS]

Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at

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