Baltimore welcomes a new archbishop

Today's installation of William E. Lori as the 16th archbishop of Baltimore is a noteworthy event, not only for the half-million Catholics in an archdiocese that stretches from Middle River to the mountains of Western Maryland, but for non-Catholics, too. The church continues to wield great influence in the secular world and notably in Maryland, a state with a long history of Catholicism from the Colonial era to the present.

We wish Archbishop Lori well. He succeeds CardinalEdwin F. O'Brien, whose relatively brief time in Baltimore will be remembered, for better or worse, primarily for his controversial decision to close 13 of 64 Catholic schools and consolidate others. While those changes brought greater economic stability to a system struggling with declining enrollment and mounting debt, they also caused considerable distress for those who lost schools, particularly in the Baltimore area.

Like Cardinal O'Brien, Archbishop Lori arrives with a reputation as a traditionalist. The faithful should expect no liberalization under his tenure, no acceptance of gay marriage or other social changes that are sweeping the nation. As chairman of the U.S. Conference of Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, he has received considerable attention for denouncing the federal regulations developed as part of President Barack Obama's health care reform law that would require health insurance plans covering employees of Catholic schools, hospitals and charities to pay for contraception.

Even before delivering his inaugural homily, Archbishop Lori made it clear that standing up to government mandates and policies is much on his mind, telling a gathering of priests on Tuesday that "we can't go into a restaurant and order the ecclesiology du jour" and must "take a stance."

We would not presume to instruct the new archbishop otherwise. The church has an absolute right to its religious beliefs, and he is free to speak out against (or in favor of) whatever he likes — just as he is also free from having a religion with which he disagrees forced upon him. Under our nation's constitution, this is a protection all who live in the United States enjoy.

But we hope these issues will not be the defining ones of his tenure here. As he gets to know the nation's oldest archdiocese, he may find that beyond the historic walls of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the hardships of poverty are of far more pressing importance.

Make no mistake, Archbishop Lori's predecessors and others in the archdiocese have done much for Baltimore's poor in the past. Yet the needs outstrip those efforts. Recently, the House of Representatives approved a budget that would spare Pentagon spending but would greatly reduce federal programs that help the elderly, poor and sick. Yet there were no press-ready condemnations coming from the archdiocese about that particular secular decision.

Has the church lost interest in helping the least powerful in the community? We presume not, yet it's curious how certain policies — contraception and civil marriage to name two — cause a veritable uproar from the Catholic hierarchy, while others that would seem just as much counter to church teachings — the neglect of the poor, the growth of military spending, the continued use of capital punishment and other examples of social injustice — often seem to fall by the wayside.

What's especially frustrating about this is that the church's position on marriage and birth control hits Baltimore's most vulnerable hardest. Unwanted pregnancy keeps many tied down in the chains of poverty, and the church's continued attacks on Mr. Obama provide ammunition to those who would overturn health care reform entirely (and leave tens of millions of Americans without health coverage). And the children of same-sex couples deserve the same rights to health insurance, inheritance and other legal benefits that other children are provided under law.

We and many other Marylanders (including many Catholics) may never see eye to eye with the church on some cultural issues. But all must recognize the church's powerful history of advocating for social justice — and its potential to play an instrumental role in improving the lives of the least among us. Archbishop Lori will soon come to know the profundity of the need around him, but he should also know that if he chooses to make its amelioration his legacy, the community, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, will stand by his side.