VATICAN CITY ? Pope Benedict XVI says Roman Catholics in the U.S. need to understand the "grave threats" to their faith posed by what he calls radical secularism in the political and cultural arenas.
He addressed visiting U.S. bishops Thursday and used the same language in warning that attempts are being made to erode their religious freedom.
Benedict did not explicitly mention it, but the bishops have complained their religious freedom is eroding in the face of growing acceptance of gay marriage and attempts to marginalize faith. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has recently formed a committee on protecting religious liberty and hired attorneys and a lobbyist to work on the issue.
The pope said many of the bishops have complained about attempts to deny conscientious objection with regard to cooperation in "intrinsically evil practices." U.S. church leaders have been pressing for a broader religious exception to part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul that mandates private insurers pay for contraception. The Obama administration has not yet made a decision on the policy and the timing is uncertain.
Bishops also are pressing for broader religious exemptions in U.S. states that have legalized same-gender civil unions or marriage. The vast network of Catholic social services in the United States includes adoption and foster-care placement. Bishops in some states have either shut down adoption programs or have lost their government contracts after refusing to place children with same-gender couples.
Benedict also expressed appreciation that bishops have been more outspoken about American Catholic politicians who don't follow church teaching on abortion and other issues.
The pope said Catholics in political life have a "personal responsibility to offer public witness to their faith, especially with regard to the great moral issues of our time."
American Catholics have bitterly debated the obligations of Catholic lawmakers to oppose government policies that go against core Catholic teaching. In recent years, a small but growing number of local bishops have publicly told Catholic lawmakers who support abortion rights not to present themselves for Holy Communion because of their stance on the issue.
The White House had no response to the pope's remarks.
Officials of Catholic-affiliated institutions that have asked for a broader conscience exception to the birth control coverage requirement are frustrated that the administration has yet to make its ruling.