A Remarkable Freedom

As Independence Day approaches, a cacophony of voices tempts us to look back on what was or might have been – instead of forging ahead. “Wasn’t it nice when…” is one such chorus. To that theme belong many variations, which sing of past glories, national and ethnic, or even ecclesial – for it cannot be honestly defended that Catholics are immune from such vanities. Concern and even outrage over what has gone wrong in our world, our country and, yes, our own Church summons us to work and pray for reform and healing. It must never drive us to withdraw from proclaiming freely and living courageously according to our faith and conscience.

Nothing is less persuasive to a young athlete than an aging one’s den of old trophies. Those looking to the Church for inspiration rightly expect it to say something to their future, not just its own past. Pope Francis has been setting a strong example of forward-looking leadership, focusing on the Church’s mission to the whole world, especially the poor and marginalized in our society. He has used some powerful signs, even in the simplicity with which he has chosen to live. Declining an opportunity to occupy the white chair at a recent cultural event attended by important officials of Church and state was not inadvertent, we might suspect, nor did it escape media attention. In word and gesture, the Holy Father is signaling a Church that wants to be in touch with people where they live, work and struggle each day.

It is ironic that in our own country, which was founded on the strong belief in freedom of faith and conscience, we are becoming increasingly aware of threats to these same liberties. No one should forget or even minimize the great sacrifices of past generations in order to preserve them. It was, after all, the search for a haven in which everyone could practice their faith unfettered by government opposition or oppression that impelled most of our ancestors to come to these shores. From its origins, citizens of this land possessed this remarkable freedom, which served as a cornerstone for so many other rights and liberties.

Freedom of religion, American style, was never understood as a merely private matter. The original settlers well understood how it was intimately bound up with their ownership rights, the right of free association and freedom of the press. A faith without the freedom to bear public witness to it is effectively frozen, little more than a museum piece. It will not come to life with a mere display of its liturgical artifacts or collections of cultural hand-me-downs, no matter how beautiful in themselves.

If there is to be a future for freedom in our country, it will depend on witness to a faith that affirms the dignity of all human beings, the protection of our most vulnerable members, born or unborn, respect for the rights of those whose beliefs may differ from our own without abandoning our duty to preach the Gospel openly and through the testimony of our lives in the public forum. That includes maintaining the structures through which we carry out our mission: schools, institutions of health care and the many charities that serve those in need. Faith and freedom are not enemies but rather partners for the fulfillment of our humanity. One cannot endure without the other.

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