Defending and promoting our first, most cherished liberty, The Anchor, April 20, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
April 20, 2012

Last Thursday, the U.S. Bishops’ Ad-Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty published a powerful statement on religious liberty in which they gave an “urgent summons” to Catholics and all Americans “to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both home and abroad.” We printed the statement in its entirety on pages 12-14 of this edition.

Pope Benedict, in a January meeting with visiting American bishops, expressed his own alarm at the “attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.” He said he was distressed that “concerted efforts have been made to deny the right of conscientious objection on the part of Catholic individuals and institutions with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices” and that some elements were trying to “reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship.” In order to combat these worrying tendencies, the Holy Father said there was a pressing need for an “engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism that would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society.”

The U.S. bishops’ statement, entitled, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” is an attempt to provide especially the laity with this strong critical sense needed to become “engaged and articulate” in insisting that Catholic Americans should not have to choose between being good disciples and good citizens. The bishops intended to “speak frankly,” and they certainly did. It’s a statement that all readers of The Anchor should not just read in its entirety, but study and assimilate so as to be able to bring their powerful arguments to the public square.

The document is broken down into eight parts. In the introductory section, the bishops focus on how, according not just to our faith but to the Constitution, our distinct allegiances as Catholics and Americans “need not be contradictory and should instead be complementary.” Religious freedom is a “special inheritance,” they said, obtained at great price, and we’re all called to be good stewards in defending it.

The bishops then describe how religious freedom is under threat by much more than the outrageous HHS mandate, showing that recent attacks on religious freedom are not isolated occurrences, but part of a pattern in which freedom of religion and freedom of conscience are being abused in various ways by municipal, state and federal agencies.

Next they emphasize that religious freedom is more than freedom to worship, because the life of faith is more than prayer. “Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home,” the bishops state. “It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith?” When religious freedom is reduced to a right to pray, “all Americans suffer,” because they will be deprived of religious believers’ contributions in education, health care, work with the poor and in so many other needed ways. Such reductions — like the Justice Department’s argument that Churches have no right to hire only people of their own religion except exclusively for preaching and teaching, or the HHS mandate that pretends that Catholic institutions that serve non-Catholics are not sufficiently religious — are not just a salvo against religious freedom, but also an “attack on civil society and the American genius for voluntary associations,” the bishops assert.

Fourth, the statement gives a brief history of religious liberty in the United States, referencing not only the vigorous defenses of freedom of conscience made by Washington, Jefferson and Madison, but also the protections given much earlier in Maryland’s 1649 Act Concerning Religion. They cite the recent unanimous Supreme Court decision affirming the importance of religious freedom in which Chief Justice John Roberts traced the duty of government to protect religious liberty back to the Magna Carta and beyond. Religious freedom, the bishops summarize, “is our American heritage, our most cherished freedom. It is the first freedom because if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile. If citizens are not free in their own consciences, how can they be free in relation to others, or to the state?” They go even further, arguing that if religious freedom is no longer protected here, the whole fiber of America changes:  “If our obligations and duties to God are impeded, or even worse, contradicted by the government, then we can no longer claim to be a land of the free, and a beacon of hope for the world.”

The next section describes the Christian teaching on religious freedom. The bishops reference not papal documents but a recent, non-Catholic, American hero: Dr. Martin Luther King, who in his famous 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” stated that the “goal of America is freedom” and described how an “unjust law” — a law that does not “square with the moral law or the law of God” — is “no law at all.” That’s what gave him and the Civil Rights movement the courage to resist the unjust Jim Crow laws.

The bishops boldly call Catholic Americans to the same type of courageous resistance. “It is a sobering thing,” they write, “to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices,” like — they were too charitable to note — the president sought to do in February with regard to the HHS mandate. In a robust, clear summons indicative of the seriousness of the issue and its consequences, they state, “If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them.” They stress, “No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.”

The bishops then describe that religious liberty in many other parts of the world, where Christians are being imprisoned and killed, is in “much greater peril” than here, but added the somewhat obvious point, “If religious liberty is eroded here at home, American defense of religious liberty abroad is less credible.”

Seventh, the bishops call the entire Catholic community in the United States to action. The goal, they say, “nothing more than that our God-given right to religious liberty be respected, nothing less than that the Constitution and laws of the United States, which recognize that right, be respected.” They call on an engaged and articulate laity to “impress” upon elected representatives the importance of continued protection of religious liberty; on public officials to note that protecting religious liberty “ought not to be a partisan issue,” and that “great non-partisan effort” is needed to protect it; on Catholics in Catholic social institutions to “hold first, stand fast, and to insist upon what belongs to you by right as Catholics and Americans” if the government seeks to get them to betray their conscience and faith; on priests to have the “courage and zeal” to give a suitable catechesis on religious liberty; on those who drive the culture to “use their skills and talents in defense of our first freedom”; and on bishops to be “bold, clear, and insistent in warning against threats to the rights of our people.” In short, they are trying to raise up “all the energies the Catholic community can muster.”

They conclude by turning to the first response faithful Catholics should have to any crisis: prayer. The bishops urge all Catholic Americans to an “intensification of your prayers and fasting for a new birth of freedom in our beloved country.” And they propose a “fortnight of freedom,” two weeks of urgent prayer for religious liberty, beginning on June 21, the vigil of the feast of the great heroes of conscience, SS. Thomas More and John Fisher, and extending through Independence Day, a day on which we all remember and thank God for our basic, inalienable freedoms. They envision this fortnight as a “great hymn of prayer for our country,” a “special period of prayer, study, catechesis and public action” that will “constitute a great national campaign of witness for religious liberty.”

By their document on “our first, most cherished liberty,” the bishops have already gotten this period of prayer, study, catechesis and public action off to a good start.