Witnessing to the Truth, Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (B), February 11, 2012

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
February 11, 2012
Lev 13:1-2,44-46; 1 Cor 10:31-11:1; Mk 1:40-45

WITNESSING TO THE TRUTH

  • In today’s second reading, St. Paul encourages all Christians, to “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” We are called to emulate the saints in their emulation of Jesus. Obviously this means that we are called to live a holy life. But it also means, at times, that we need, like Jesus and the saints, to be a sign of contradiction to our age, and even, if necessary, to suffer for our faith. When Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate, he said that he had come to give “witness to the truth.” And we know that that witness to the truth led to Calvary. The same witness to the truth led St. Paul to imprisonment and death at the hands of the Roman empire. The same witness to the truth and to the inviolable dignity of conscience led many martyrs to be put to death by various groups and governments throughout the centuries. Their witness , and their eternal reward, fills us with courage and inspiration. As St. Paul wrote earlier in the same letter to the Corinthians, God chooses “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,… what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:28). He chooses the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness to him. We are called to imitate Paul, the saints, and ultimately Christ in courageous witness to the truth, even if it may be unpopular, even if it will upset the apple cart, even if those in power will want to ostracize us like politically-incorrect lepers to the margins of society.
  • We are now in a time when Catholics and all religious believers in our country courageously need to rise up not only in witness of the truth and conscience but also in defense of our rights as citizens.
  • Our country was founded by those seeking religious freedom from the tyrannical power of the State. The Puritans came here for religious freedom. Religious freedom was something for which so many national heroes were willing to die. Those who risked their lives to sign the Declaration of Independence recognized that certain rights were inalienable because they’re given by God, not conceded by the state, and because they’re God-given, the state couldn’t take them away. The Declaration was a manifesto against the excessive reach of unbridled state power. Likewise, when the founding fathers thought that the Constitution wasn’t explicit enough about the rights on which the federal government couldn’t infringe, it composed the first ten amendments we call the Bill of Rights, with the right to religious freedom being the first one enumerated. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The federal government, in other words, couldn’t make a national religion or prohibit the free exercise of religion. The founders knew of the importance of religion to make the United States work, because the only way we could really have a free country would be, as our second President John Adams said, if we had a “moral and religious people,” men and women, boys and girls, who had a well-developed sense of right and wrong who wouldn’t break the law even if they could get away with it. Religious freedom allowed for a vibrant moral and religious culture to develop so that it might form a vibrant and religious people.
  • Now, however, that religious freedom is under attack. It’s under assault by our President who solemnly swore on the Lincoln Bible three years ago that he would “to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The President and his administration is attacking freedom of religion as part of what Pope Benedict last month in an address to American bishops called a “radical secularism,” “opposed to the core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition [and] increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.” These attacks against religious freedom are not the “change” that those Catholics who supported President Obama in the last election were counting on. This is not the content of the “hope” Catholics and other conscientious citizens believed he promised. Thomas Jefferson said in 1809, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” Let’s look at how the Obama administration has been attacking this most “dear” provision:
  • The Administration is attacking our religious liberty through the Justice Department, which recently argued before the Supreme Court that religious groups shouldn’t have any more rights in the hiring and firing of people than any labor unions or social clubs. In other words, the Administration believes that a Church — like the Hosanna Tabor Lutheran Church in a Lutheran Church in Redford, Michigan — doesn’t have the right to hire people that believe or live according to Lutheran principles if it violates any anti-discrimination laws passed by government. On January 11, the Supreme Court decided 9-0 that the Obama administration’s policy was “remarkable, extreme and untenable.” Even Justice Elena Kagan, who before President Obama nominated her for the Court had been his solicitor general arguing for his administration before the Court, called the Administration’s narrow take on the First Amendment “amazing,” and not in the good sense. To make it real, if the Administration had gotten its way, Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals, wouldn’t be able to give preference to practicing Catholics in any position other than those who exclusively teach the faith, because when it comes to a conflict between religious teachings and practice and governmental laws, the governmental laws, or executive branch agency interpretations, must trump.
  • The Administration is discriminating against the Church in the Church’s social work, refusing to renew contracts with, for example, the Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services for its award-winning work with sex-trafficking victims, because we refuse to offer “the full range of reproductive services.” If we won’t facilitate sex slaves getting abortions, in other words — something that will just allow these victims to continue to be exploited — then we are no longer able to participate in the program. The reason why the government gives money to faith-based groups at all is not because we have any right to tax dollars, but because we’re better at delivering services than government agencies would be. We have a network that can help sex slaves better than secular or government departments. But despite being judged by the HHS civil servants as the best means to help sex slaves, political operatives at HHS overturned it because we won’t push abortion and immoral practices upon sex-slave victims. The government is simply discriminating against us on the basis of our religious beliefs, saying no faithful Catholics need apply. The Administration is likewise threatening for the same reason to cut off all association with Catholic Relief Services, which has become famous for its work in helping people recover from disasters, like after Hurricane Katrina, or the Tsunami in Malaysia, or the earthquake in Haiti. Even though everyone recognizes that groups like CRS do tremendous work that government agencies can’t, which is one of the reasons why governments funnel their support through such agencies, the Obama Administration is threatening not to funnel anything through CRS because as a Catholic agency we won’t refer for abortions, or pass out condoms, as if those things are really what’s essential after a natural disaster.
  • The Administration is also attacking religious freedom by its push for the redefinition of marriage. Today we mark World Marriage Sunday, which since 1981 has been celebrated by 43 states to focus the attention of everyone on the blessing of marriage as the mutual committed love of husband and wife and to thank married couples for all the sacrifices they make not only to build our country but build a nation. In the last year, however, the Obama Justice Department has begun to look at this notion of marriage as an unconstitutional form of bigotry. It began when the Obama Administration decided no longer to defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act that Congress overwhelmingly passed and President Clinton signed in 1996. Then, in legal briefs, not only did the Obama administration cease to defend it, they began to attack it as unconstitutional, irrational discrimination. That our celebrating World Marriage Sunday here in Church today is basically the same thing as a Ku Klux Klan rally. If the Obama administration gets its way, then any attempt to uphold what marriage really is will be considered unconstitutional, despite religious freedom protections. We will all be forced or pressured to treat same-sex relationships as if they’re true marriages, and that will have consequences in employment, adoption, education, healthcare, housing, and so many other things we do, as same-sex marriage becomes the norm in law.
  • This push for a radical agenda against judeo-Christian beliefs is even clearer in the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. I wrote an article in the bulletin this week where I mentioned what the Administration is doing internationally, where the Bill of Rights’ protection of religious freedom obviously doesn’t apply. The U.S. government has ceased to defend in our foreign policy the right to religious freedom but only the right to worship, which basically means that people should be free to get together to pray but not to live according to their faith in public life. The reason for this massive shift in U.S. policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a December 2009 speech at Georgetown, was to advance a newly-concocted fundamental right for people to “love in the way they choose.” In other words, in order to push an international right for people of the same-sex to marry and have their relationships treated the same way as marriage, the Obama administration recognizes that it can no longer defend religious freedom, because, since most vibrant religions look at same-sex activity as sinful, they would not be able to be coerced to abide by the redefinition of marriage.
  • That points to what’s really going on in all of these infringements, and why so many religious leaders and citizens are so alarmed and, frankly, angry. The trampling on the right to religious freedom by the Obama administration is precisely in order to push radically secularist agenda, neglecting real rights enshrined in our Constitution in order to advance newly-invented ones like the “right to love the way we choose,” or the right to abortion, and now the right to compel other people pay for your contraception, sterilizations and abortifacient pills. Just as the early Christians refused when governments said they couldn’t worship God, so we need to have the courage to refuse to cooperate with the immoral trampling on religious freedom now.
  • Let’s talk about the issue most in play now, the one that’s been dominating the news: the Obama Administration’s decision to compel all employers, including all religious employers except actually houses of worship, to pay for others to have “free” access to contraception, abortifacient drugs, and sterilizations. Yesterday, after three weeks of being pilloried by both believers and non-believers — liberals, conservatives, moderates, progressives, libertarians — for a total lack of respect for the first Amendment, President Obama announced an “accommodation,” that pretended to meet the concerns of religious believers. Now, instead of forcing Catholic schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other businesses to have to pay for these “preventive services” directly, the Administration will, when non-exempt religious institutions object, make their insurance companies have to offer it for free instead. But this is just a smokescreen, an accounting trick that doesn’t truly address the issue of religious freedom and our not having to cooperate at all in something we consider immoral. As the Wall Street Journal noted yesterday morning in an editorial, “Insurance companies won’t be making donations. Drug makers will still charge for the pill. Doctors will still bill for reproductive treatment. The reality, as with all mandated benefits, is that these costs will be borne eventually via higher premiums.” We’ll still be paying in other words.
  • The issue is not about access to things like contraception, sterilizations and pharmacological abortions. People have unfettered access to them now. The issue is not about whether these things will all be expensive, cheap, or free. The issue is whether people who think that these practices are evil can be forced to pay for them, whether they need to be compelled to act against their conscience and religious beliefs, or whether the U.S. Constitution in giving the right to religious freedom means precisely that people can’t be compelled to do this.
  • What the real issue is came up in a radio interview I was doing on Friday. A woman called in to the program saying it was much ado about nothing, that most women use contraception, and the Church should just get over it. I asked her in response, whether she by chance was against the death penalty. She said she was. I then asked, “Imagine you were forced, in order to have access to health care, to have to pay for lethal injections used to execute those on death row. How would you feel about that?” I told her that the reason why she’s not opposing what the Obama administration is trying to do is because she’s basically not opposed to morning after pills, sterilizations and contraception. But I told her that if the Obama Administration doesn’t respect the principle of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution, if it doesn’t refrain itself from compelling believers to act against their conscience with regard to these issues, then what’s to stop the Administration from eventually compelling her to do something against her conscience? She began to see what the real issue is.
  • The U.S. bishops released a statement Friday night that updates the letter Bishop Coleman wrote us that I’ve printed in the bulletin and ask you to read and pass on to others. After examining the details of how the proposal really changes very little to protect the consciences of those opposed, they said:
  • Stepping away from the particulars, we note that today’s proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions. In a nation dedicated to religious liberty as its first and founding principle, we should not be limited to negotiating within these parameters. The only complete solution to this religious liberty problem is for HHS to rescind the mandate of these objectionable services.
  • We will therefore continue—with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency—our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government. For example, we renew our call on Congress to pass, and the Administration to sign, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act. And we renew our call to the Catholic faithful, and to all our fellow Americans, to join together in this effort to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all.
    They are calling on all Catholics again to act, like our action, joined by others, got the President to make this initial “accommodation.” There are several things we should do.
  • The first thing that Catholics always are called to do is to pray. Please pray for the courage of all our religious leaders, for yourself and for our fellow citizens, that we may persevere in the defense of our religious freedom. Please pray, too, for the conversion of President Obama and all those in his administration who are trying to force this radical secularist agenda on the nation.
  • Second, I’m going to ask you to do something you may never hear again in a homily in a Catholic Church. Normally you’re asked to turn off your cell phones. I’m going to ask you, if you have a cell phone, please turn it on now. I’m going to give you a telephone number I’d like you to call and you can punch it in and redial it later. If you don’t have a cell phone, I’d ask you to take out a pen and write it on the bulletin. If you don’t have anything, please just listen carefully. I’m going to give you the number for the White House’s comments line. It’s 202.456.1111. Please call the White House and say, “Rescind totally the contraception mandate,” or any other way you want to phrase it. I’d also encourage you to call your Senators and Representatives and encourage them to support the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act which is in both houses and geared to preventing the new health care reforms to be used as a vehicle to repress religious freedom and the rights of conscience.
  • Third, please start talking to others about what this is all about. It’s not about how many people use the pill or whether they’re going to have access to it. It’s about whether those who object to the use of contraception, or abortion-pills, or sterilizations should have to pay for others to use them. It’s about whether there’s going to be religious freedom in this country or not, or whether we’re going to allow the President and others to ignore the Constitution they’ve sworn to uphold and defend.
  • There’s one last action I’ll mention that I’d like you to ponder and pray about over the course of the next nine months. We now have a president who is trampling on our religious freedom. Is this the type of president you want? Regardless of other issues, do you want a president who doesn’t respect our beliefs and tries to use the power of government to force us to act against them? Or do you want a President who does respect religious freedom and would never consciously violate these constitutional rights? One of the most important questions we need to be asking of anyone running for office and asking for our vote this is what they’d do with regard to religious freedom. We need to ask this of all those running for President. We need to ask this of Senator Scott Brown and Candidate Elizabeth Warren. We need to ask this of Congressman Keating, District Attorney Sutter and anyone else who will be running to represent us in the new Congressional district. And we can’t be satisfied with vague words of support for religious freedom. We need them to go on record with respect to the HHS mandate, with respect to the Defense of Marriage Act, with respect to whether religious organizations need to promote abortion in order to receive any government funds at all to carry out crucial social work. I’d urge you to recognize that if a candidate for office cannot defend our religious freedom then he or she really cannot adequately represent us and shouldn’t be in a position where they can use the coercive power of government to violate our rights. In a free country, we ultimately get the leaders we deserve. We should never elect people who would violate our rights. We have the power to correct these abuses at the ballot box — and we need to rise up and use that power.
  • I finish by returning to St. Paul’s words to us today, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” We are called to emulate the example of St. Paul, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. If St. Paul were here today speaking about these abuses against our rights as citizens and believers, do you think he’d tell us to just to be quiet, to lie down and take it, or would he urge us to get up it witness to the truth and to defend our rights as he defended his rights as a Roman citizen? If Jesus were here today visibly to give this homily directly, what would he tell us to do? Do you think he would tell us that he wants us to pay for other people’s sinful use of abortion-causing pills, for the mutiliation of others’ reproductive systems for contraceptive purposes, and for pills that take out the life-giving potential that he has bestowed upon the act of making love? I think we all know the answer.
  • Now is the time for us to imitate Christ, St. Paul, St. Anthony and so many saints and martyrs in rising up to give witness to the truth in our own day. God chooses the weak and makes them strong in bearing witness to him in every age. May Jesus Christ, who reached out to touch the leper in today’s Gospel and who is about to touch each of us on the inside in the Eucharist, strengthen us and embolden us to carry out this mission!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 LV 13:1-2, 44-46

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron,
“If someone has on his skin a scab or pustule or blotch
which appears to be the sore of leprosy,
he shall be brought to Aaron, the priest,
or to one of the priests among his descendants.
If the man is leprous and unclean,
the priest shall declare him unclean
by reason of the sore on his head.“The one who bears the sore of leprosy
shall keep his garments rent and his head bare,
and shall muffle his beard;
he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’
As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean,
since he is in fact unclean.
He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”

Responsorial Psalm PS 32:1-2, 5, 11

R. (7) I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.
Blessed is he whose fault is taken away,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed the man to whom the LORD imputes not guilt,
in whose spirit there is no guile.
R. I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
my guilt I covered not.
I said, “I confess my faults to the LORD,”
and you took away the guilt of my sin.
R. I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, you just;
exult, all you upright of heart.
R. I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.

Reading 2 1 COR 10:31—11:1

Brothers and sisters,
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do,
do everything for the glory of God.
Avoid giving offense, whether to the Jews or Greeks or
the church of God,
just as I try to please everyone in every way,
not seeking my own benefit but that of the many,
that they may be saved.
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

Alleluia LK 7:16

R. Alleluia, alleluia.
A great prophet has arisen in our midst,
God has visited his people.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.

Gospel MK 1:40-45

A leper came to Jesus and kneeling down begged him and said,
“If you wish, you can make me clean.”
Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand,
touched him, and said to him,
“I do will it. Be made clean.”
The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean.
Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once.

He said to him, “See that you tell no one anything,
but go, show yourself to the priest
and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed;
that will be proof for them.”

The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.
He spread the report abroad
so that it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly.
He remained outside in deserted places,
and people kept coming to him from everywhere.