On January 19, Pope Benedict received a group of U.S. bishops during the ad limina report to Rome all of us bishops made in the past eight months. The Holy Father spoke of the Church’s witness, which “of its nature is public.” Therefore, when faced with “grave threats to the Church’s public witness,” threats to the good of the society as a whole, the Church must speak out. He went on: “Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.”
While we can chronicle a wide number of these in recent years here in our country — encroachments in the private and the public sphere, attacks on religion in general and Christianity in particular — the recent HHS mandates have defined religion and religious institutions in so narrow a way that it divides our Church and others into segments, with the government deciding what parts of our life as a Church are “religious” and what parts of it are not. In effect, the federal government has told us that we have freedom to worship but not freedom to act according to that worship, freedom to pass on our faith but not freedom to let it enter into the public square.
While the bishops have sought to engage the current administration in dialogue and continue so to do, our efforts have had no real results, as I can attest from the meeting Baltimore Archbishop William Lori and I had in the White House in March. (Archbishop Lori chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.) While the bishops’ staff has been working with Congress to rectify this too narrow definition of “religion,” to date there has been no resolution in that branch. While 43 Catholic institutions, including our diocese and our diocesan Catholic Charities and Catholic Health Services of Long Island, have filed suits in 12 federal courts across the country, these suits take time and we will not know their result in the proximate future.
Because these issues are critical for the protection of religious liberty and the protection of religious institutions and individual conscience, the bishops are calling on the Church as a whole to give public witness of our commitment to religious freedom, not just for ourselves but for all Americans. Religious freedom is at the heart of our Declaration of Independence. Religious freedom is enshrined in our Constitution. Religious freedom is our first and most cherished right in the Bill of Rights. Even more, freedom of religion is a right given to us not by the state or any human entity. It is given to us by God and cannot be denied or interfered with by any agency or group, state or nation.
From June 21 to July 4, the bishops have called all of us who make up the Church to be united in a Fortnight for Freedom. The goal is to pray and witness to the importance of religious freedom and freedom of conscience for all Americans with special emphasis on the need to correct the unacceptable definition of religious freedom currently in the HHS regulations. Ours will be a demonstration of the witness of people of faith who place prayer first as the strongest power we can bring to any public debate and every public issue. It will be my privilege to preside at Evening Prayer on Friday, June 22 at 8 p.m. in St. Agnes Cathedral. I invite one and all to join me that evening so we can give a witness to our commitment in union with the Catholic Church and other religious bodies in our nation who will be united in this effort. During the following two weeks, there will be prayer vigils and rosaries, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and other acts of prayerful witness across our diocese. I have designated six parishes as “station churches.” You can find the list in this paper and on our diocesan website, www.drvc.org. The pastors of these parishes have been generous in helping us organize moments of prayer and reflection across our diocese. Bishop-Elect Brennan will conclude this fortnight with Mass at St. Agnes Cathedral on July 4 at 12:10 p.m. All are invited!
Many of you may ask how you can know more about the issue and more about how we as Church need to defend religious freedom both in our own nation and around the world. There are many resources for that. I am hopeful that, during this Fortnight, individuals and groups in our parishes and institutions will also study and discuss this issue among yourselves and decide what other actions might be appropriate. For starters, let me offer you three resources. First is the address of Pope Benedict I mentioned above. It is brilliant, insightful and very understandable. It can be found on the Vatican website, www.vatican.va. Second is the statement of the USCCB, United for Religious Freedom. It was passed unanimously by the 40 of us on the administrative committee in March. Last week, it was unanimously ratified by the whole body of the USCCB. Third is the study document on religious liberty issued by our Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. These last two can be found on the USCCB website, www.usccb.org as well as on our diocesan website, www.drvc.org.
There are many other initiatives that others have organized. I want publicly to commend the group Stand up for Freedom. Many are organizing rallies that support religious freedom and seek support for a full and robust protection of religious freedom and freedom of conscience for every citizen and for the good of our nation. Many laypersons are responding to the call of the Second Vatican Council for Catholic faithful to fulfill their proper role of bringing the truths about the human person and the common good into the public square. In that way, what we support by prayer can be translated into practice in our society.
As our Holy Father told us bishops, “Here we see the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense…and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism … The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country.”
PRAYER FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
Almighty God, Father of all nations, for freedom you have set us free in Christ Jesus (Gal. 5:1)
We praise and bless you for the gift of religious liberty, the foundation of human rights, justice, and the common good.
Grant to our leaders the wisdom to protect and promote our liberties; by your grace may we have the courage to defend them, for ourselves and for all those who live in this blessed land.
We ask this through the intercession of Mary Immaculate, our patroness, and in the name of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, with whom you live and reign, one God, forever and ever, Amen.
See www.usccb.org for additional prayers and resources