The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which includes me, ask us to raise up once again in prayerful concern the serious threats to religious liberty during a Fortnight for Freedom. The theme this year is “Witnesses to Freedom.” It begins on June 21 and concludes on the Fourth of July. We will do so at a Holy Hour on June 28 in the Cathedral at 7 p.m.
Pope Francis has noted “A Church or a Christian who does not give witness is sterile; like a dead person who thinks they are alive; like a dried up tree that produces no fruit; an empty well that offers no water! The Church has overcome evil thanks to the courageous, concrete and humble witness of her children. She has conquered evil thanks to proclaiming with conviction: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
The horror of persecution of Christians around the world is breathtaking and tear making. It has resulted in thousands of lives lost and millions displaced. Let us pray for them and support those Church agencies which seek to provide physical assistance and are witnesses of hope that comes with faith in Jesus Christ.
Here at home the persecution is more subtle but growing on many fronts. We are called to be witnesses to religious freedom in the public square including for whom we vote and standing up for our rights especially in the workplace and institutional settings.
In addressing this threat we do so not as partisans who seek political influence, nor as a special interest which seeks favors, nor as those seeking profit. We do so as disciples of Jesus Christ who seek to follow his directive to first love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and then our neighbor as our self.
One journalist wrote that we Christians are now exiles in our own country. Even if true, we must make clear that we have not left our country and that we will stand up for our God-given rights to religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
As we do so we pray for those who reject faith and those including some government officials, corporate powers and ideological zealots who view believers as old-fashioned, as pests, and even as enemies. We pray for their conversion and changed hearts. We do so not as victims but with the hope that comes from knowing that our Lord has overcome the world; not as adversaries but as evangelists who seek to share the joy of Christ with all; not as dividers but as healers, as instruments of Christ’s invitation to fullness of life in Him.
As we face disagreements and hostility we must do so with civility, compassion, forgiveness but also with courage. We ought not forsake Christ for popularity or paper peace. Our souls and the souls of those who touch our lives and those whose lives we touch are on the line.
It is within that context we approach this continuing threat. Thus we recognize the rule of law in our country to which we owe respect; we also recognize the law of God to which we owe obedience. While respecting civil law generally we cannot disown God’s law.
What are God’s laws that we must defend and are threatened in today’s culture? They include:
1. the dignity of human life from conception to natural death, and respecting all persons in the years in-between,
2. the family unit as the basis on which a stable society is grounded
3. marriage as intended by God which is the union of one man and one woman open to children
4. the responsibility to feed the hungry, comfort the sick and welcome the stranger in ways consistent with the teachings of Christ, and
5. recognizing that God is the creator and we are his creatures subject to his natural laws rejecting ideologies that center on ourselves as little gods.
The fact is that we now are surrounded by a culture that essentially rejects the presence of God and our need for God.
Pope Francis noted this trend: “When in the name of an ideology, there is an attempt to remove God from society, it ends up adoring idols, and very soon men and women lose their way, their dignity is trampled and their rights violated.”
One spiritual advisor noted that there are three pagan gods being worshipped today in our country: the god of economics, the god of politics, and the god of entertainment. Each has its narrow and self-centered agenda which it seeks to impose upon us all. The frightening reality today is that they have come together to bully and subjugate those of us who worship the true God. Thus by threats of boycotts, by ruthless imposition of government regulations and by the media saturation with sordid and unseemly images, they seek to drown religious freedom.
What is on the horizon that may restrict our religious liberty and freedom of conscience? That threat includes the use of government regulations to force individual believers and Catholic institutions to violate moral truth such as the mandate to provide drugs that cause abortions. They include the use of government to force employing in Catholic schools and other institutions those who reject in word or action Christ’s teaching.
They include efforts to punish faith-affirming speech as harassment or discriminatory or bigoted hate speech. They include efforts to restrict or withhold accreditation and licenses unless our beliefs are compromised. They include prohibiting government grants and contracts and tax-exemptions in order to limit our outreach ministries by which we live our baptismal call to serve all, Catholics and not.
They include using law suits as time-devouring weapons or to bully settlements that weaken financial support for Church ministries. They include intimidating small business owners to violate their consciences or face going out-of-business. The list could go on.
We clergy, consecrated and lay, must recommit to defending the free exercise of religion and of speech from hostile judges, government regulators, legislative bodies at all levels, corporate boards and media moguls. In that ministry we will be good citizens and persons of charity, but with the motto ever in our hearts, as St. Thomas More, another witness and martyr for the faith, put it, “I am the King’s good servant but God’s first.”
We also do so with hope. Pope Francis has noted: “Everything passes, only God remains. Indeed, kingdoms, peoples, cultures, nations, ideologies, powers have passed, but the Church, founded on Christ, notwithstanding the many storms and our many sins, remains ever faithful to the deposit of faith shown in service; for the Church does not belong to popes, bishops, priests, nor the lay faithful; the Church in every moment belongs solely to Christ. Only the one who lives in Christ promotes and defends the Church by holiness of
life . . .”
May we each day live with fidelity and integrity defending the Church by word and deed. May we daily seek to grow in holiness by being Witnesses to Freedom as faithful and hopeful disciples of Christ.
May Our Lady watch over and Saint Joseph protect you and our country.