Religious liberty and why it matters

We have heard a lot in the media about the Health and Human Service Mandate concerning insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization, and abortion inducing drugs. Our Church has rightly objected to these mandates that force upon religious institutions practices that go against Church teaching. The media have cast this in narrow terms focused on contraception and trying to make this an issue about women. But the issues are wider and deeper. They need to be examined and we need to be informed. Here are two other examples that might help us more clearly see why we must constantly rally to support religious liberty.

Did you know that the Alabama immigration law makes it illegal for a Catholic priest to baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the sick with, or preach the Word of God to an undocumented immigrant? “Nor can we encourage them to attend Mass or give them a ride to Mass. It is illegal to allow them to attend adult scripture study groups, or attend CCD or Sunday school classes. It is illegal for the clergy to counsel them in times of difficulty or in preparation for marriage. It is illegal for them to come to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings or other recovery groups at our churches.” (Archbishop Thomas Rodi, of Mobile, Alabama, August 1, 2011.)

Did you know that in 2009 the Connecticut Legislature proposed a bill that would have forced Catholic parishes to be restructured according to a congregational model? This was successfully defeated by Archbishop-designate William Lori but it is frightening to think that a government would even attempt to dictate Church governance.

Archbishop Lori also testified before Congress as chairman of the Bishops’ Ad Hoc committee on Religious Liberty on February 28, 2012 concerning the mandates of the Department of Health and Human Services: “This is not a matter of whether contraception may be prohibited by the government. This is not even a matter of whether contraception may be supported by the government. Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs.”

It seems today that for some people the separation between Church and state means that only a secular religion devoid of the rich Judeo-Christian tradition is acceptable. I dare say that our society will implode upon itself if this ever becomes a reality.

Let us not be naive. There is ample evidence that an increasingly secular society wishes to make religious belief and practice a purely private matter. If our religious faith is no longer tolerated in the public arena, religious freedom is a lost instead of a cherished right. We have seen a disturbing trend among Catholic politicians who say they are personally opposed to abortion but think it should be legal. We have seen far too many Catholic politicians even here on Long Island turning their faith into a private and perhaps convenient matter, a far cry from the fervor and heroism of the countless martyrs who have given witness to Jesus Christ over the last two thousand years. We end up fighting over whether they should be receiving Communion at Mass.   We need to be more proactive in witnessing to the Gospel values Jesus gave us and living them with conviction.

Our Bishops have published a splendid document that was printed in The Long Island Catholic last week: Our First, Most Cherished Liberty. Copies are also available at our parishes. This is a must read for all Catholics and all people of faith and good will. Do not believe what you read in the secular newspapers about this document. I have seen many inaccuracies. Do not rely upon others to tell you what it says. Read the document carefully and study it. It is very well done.

The bishops propose a Fortnight for Freedom from June 27 - July 4 of this year. They describe this as a great hymn of prayer for our country. This has great potential in my opinion. However, how we go about this is critically important. This is not an opportunity to throw a pity party about how we are being persecuted. It is not a moment for self-righteousness. It is below our dignity as Christians to demonize our “opponents.” It is time for us to stand up and be heard. It is a time to witness to our faith in Jesus Christ and not take it for granted. It is a time for us to live our faith by acts of service and compassion. This fortnight should be a fortnight of joy because we proclaim the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who conquered death and sin. It should be a fortnight of service so others can see how we Christians love one another. It should be a fortnight of welcome so those who do not know Jesus Christ or no longer follow His ways may want to come and join us in the great enterprise we call the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Just last week there was a reading from the Acts of the Apostles where the Apostles were given strict orders not to teach in the name of Christ. Peter responded for all of them: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). For any government anywhere at any time to say that I cannot baptize or care for a person, be they documented or undocumented, is simply unacceptable. The issue of undocumented (yes, I did not say ‘illegal’) persons is a complicated issue concerning policy and good people can disagree. But a Christian response to care for another human being is a matter of principle, not policy, and principal always trumps policy.

Yes, religious liberty really matters.
May the Lord give you peace.