As I begin to write this article we are in the concluding days of the Fortnight for Freedom observed June 21 to July 4, 2014. The theme for this year’s observance was drawn from Pope Francis and acknowledged that our faith impels us to serve, that there is a bond between the word of God proclaimed and the sacraments we celebrate and that this must issue forth in service.
Pope Francis eloquently expresses the relationship between faith and contemporary issues in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel. “The Church’s pastors have the right to offer opinions on all that affects people’s lives, since the task of evangelization implies and demands the integral promotion of each human being. It is no longer possible to claim that religion should be restricted to the private sphere and that it exists only to prepare souls for heaven” (#182). We are citizens of two worlds. We believe that God created us to be happy in this life and we believe our ultimate happiness will come in eternal life. The practice of our faith compels us to protect the dignity of every human person and to promote the common good of all.
While the two weeks dedicated to religious liberty draw attention to threats against our religious liberty and freedom of conscience, our awareness about this vital issue and efforts to protect religious freedom should be ongoing. Religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the human person, who is endowed with reason and free will, and therefore able to take responsibility for his or her actions. Religious liberty is a God-given gift and not merely a privilege that the government grants us and can take away from us. Our religious liberty includes more than our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home; it also encompasses our ability to contribute freely to the common good of all Americans.
Our founding fathers defended religious liberty. George Washington wrote, “The conscientious scruples of men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire, that the laws may always be extensively accommodated to them” (Letter to the Annual Meeting of Quakers, 1789). In a Letter to New London Methodists in 1809 Thomas Jefferson stated, “No provisions in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man that that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.” James Madison recognized the right of “every citizen to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience” (Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment, 1785).
Our recent popes have addressed the issue of religious liberty. “The most fundamental human freedom is that of practicing one’s faith openly (St. John Paul II, Address to the Diplomatic Corps, 1996); “Religious freedom is indeed the first of human rights, not only because it is historically the first to be recognized but also because it touches the constitutive dimension of man, his relation with his Creator” (Benedict XVI, Address to the Diplomatic Corps, 2011); “Religious freedom, viewed as a fundamental human right includes the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public” (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 255).
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in favor of Hobby Lobby Stores and Conestoga Wood Specialties was good news. The court ruled that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services “preventive services” mandate violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as applied to these employers to the extent that it would have forced them to provide insurance coverage for drugs and devices that violate their religious convictions on respect for human life. In this instance, the Court acknowledged that Americans can follow their faith when they run a family business without facing devastating fines.
As welcome as this news is, we need to continue our efforts to build a culture that fully respects religious freedom. “The Court clearly did not decide whether the so-called ‘accommodation’ violates RFRA when applied to our charities, hospitals and schools, so many of which have challenged it as a burden on their religious exercise. We continue to hope that these great ministries of service . . . will prevail in their cases as well” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, June 30, 2014).
“Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith? Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services that religious groups make every day” (Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, USCCB Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty).
In closing I return again to Pope Francis. He reminds us that “religion cannot be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil situations, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. An authentic faith — which is never comfortable or completely personal — always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave the earth somehow better than we found it” (The Joy of the Gospel, #183).
Please join me in praying often for the protection of our religious freedom that allows us not only to practice our religion within the walls of our Churches and homes but permits us to serve the poor and the vulnerable in accord with their human dignity in our hospitals, schools and outreach centers.
If you have a prayer intention you would like me to consider during the weeks ahead, please mail it to my attention at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.