Religious freedom and choice

From time to time by regular mail or e-mail someone writes to say that the Church leadership should speak out on one or another topic of the day. These communications help me listen to the concerns of so many of you and often can be an impetus to address something which I might have thought was clear but, from the evidence of these letters, may not be to the average good Catholic. As we come close to elections, these letters usually increase and often indicate a fear that basic principles of the natural moral law or the dignity and human rights of persons and hence, institutions, might be at stake. I understand that and often concur with what I receive.

One of these current concerns is religious freedom. The Catholic Church, especially under the recent pontiffs, Paul VI, Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI, has been one of the strongest voices defending religious freedom for all persons and all religions and equally a voice of protest and, often, the lead actor in the righting of violations of religious freedom. I can testify to that both because of my earlier work in the Holy See and later when I served as one of the nine commissioners on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom.

Few of us thought that religious freedom would ever be an issue here in our country. Unfortunately, today it is. The Bishops’ Conference (USCCB) has attempted to engage the Administration, has supported legislation and, as a last resort, has helped several dioceses, including the Diocese of Rockville Centre, to bring suits in federal court to protect religious freedom, especially regarding the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that forces persons and institutions to provide contraceptives and some abortifacients as part of their medical plans in violation of Church teaching and Catholic conscience.

The bishops have committed themselves to a long term education effort as well. The committee on religious freedom chaired by Archbishop William Lori provides us with materials that we in turn send out to the parishes for use in bulletins and in other venues. In this column I have addressed these efforts several times. Today I want to tell you of an initiative that might merit your support if you so wish.

Long Island Citizens for Religious Liberty is a non-partisan group of concerned citizens dedicated to the protection and promotion of the First Amendment right to the free exercise of religious belief and, in this regard, to work against the federal government’s rule regarding contraceptives and abortifacients, as I have referenced above. Their concern is focused on the protection of conscience and religious belief that is threatened by the enforcement of the HHS mandate. The Diocese of Rockville Centre, through the New York State Catholic Conference, has joined in this effort to unite citizens from all walks of life, whatever their religious belief or non-belief, in their shared desire to protect religious freedom and the First Amendment from any encroachment by our government.

You can add your name and your voice to theirs by going to the Diocese of Rockville Centre website where there is a link that has all you need: a sample letter and the addresses of our two U.S. senators and of your congressional representatives from Long Island. This action alert has been sent out already to more than 12,000 e-mail addresses. Almost 3,000 of them have read the call to action and half of them acted upon it. To date Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and Congress members King, McCarthy, Israel and Bishop have all received hundreds of e-mails. It would be wonderful if all of our elected officials know firsthand that there are thousands of us committed to protect our fundamental first freedom. While making our voices heard during this election season is the immediate object of this effort, Long Island Citizens hopes to remain active in education efforts and calls to action should current or future assaults on religious freedom continue.

You know my concerns and my priorities. First and foremost I urge everyone to vote. Whatever your affiliation or non-affiliation, whatever your political preferences are, whomever you choose to vote for, please vote. That is our right and our responsibility. Second I urge everyone to be informed about the issues and about the candidates. Third I invite all Catholics, and others who wish, to make use of the bishops’ statement, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Fourth I do not hesitate to state that I invite every Catholic to heed the advice of the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus not to vote for candidates who support intrinsically evil acts. Just as I cannot bless what is wrong, so we Catholics should not support those who would advocate and support what is wrong before the eyes of God or in violation of divine law or natural moral law.

Ours is a nation of freedom and respect for the dignity and rights of every human being. We have the responsibility to continue that high standard of human conduct and to make sure that those who come after us will enjoy the blessings of freedom, the rule of law and the right conduct of a good society.