My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
In his farewell to the Nation, President George Washington reminded our fledgling country, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” As we celebrated the Fourth of July, it is good to reflect on the words of our greatest president and general who led the military effort to secure our freedom from the tyranny of British rule and guided our Nation through the formative years of our national birth.
The Fortnight (14 days) for Freedom, which we celebrated in anticipation of Independence Day, focused our attention on the need to be on guard against current threats to religious liberty in our own country and around the world. In a particular way, these days have reminded us that the “free exercise of religion” goes well beyond the right to worship and is equally important that we freely choose the manner by which we decide to live.
The recent Supreme Court decision that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act because it discriminated against homosexuals is yet another real challenge to religious freedom. Our society is rightly concerned about all forms of discrimination against particular segments of our population. In the later part of the 20th Century, the courts ruled against the laws in some states banning inter-racial marriage. To equate same-sex marriage with interracial marriage minimizes the historic and deep-rooted bigotry towards people of color and establishes a political narrative that will inevitably lead the government to exercise coercive power, taxation and regulation, to incentivize religious institutions from non-discrimination against same-sex marriages.
In the last year, as the Church has opposed the Health and Human Services mandate that requires employers to provide contraception and sterilization as part of universal health insurance, we have all witnessed how the overwhelming power of government can be brought to bear upon religious institutions.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in a document “Dignitatis Humanae” write concerning religious freedom, “This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or social groups or anyone in power in such ways that in matters of religion no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.”
This declaration, in a certain sense, was a significant development from the past understanding of the Church. The Council, in a revolutionary way, declared that religious freedom is a universal right applicable to all people and all religions.
In our world today, unfortunately, there are many examples where people of faith are persecuted or persecute one another. There is no shortage of examples, where even the basic right of worship is denied. The Council’s insight reminds us that if this universal right is universally practiced, there would certainly be peace in the world. The function of all true religion is to bring about peace and unity in the world by respecting each person’s individual human dignity.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recognized the limits being placed on religion in our secular cultures around the world. Benedict asked the laity to have the courage to encounter secularism that “would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society” and that is why the American bishops have called for this two weeks of prayer and reflection on how our precious liberties are being threatened. No church in our country has done more to foster the spirit of patriotism and loyalty to our country. We are second to none. In almost every Catholic school you see engraved in cornerstones and above lintels, the words “For God and Country.” Truly we are, and have been, a patriotic and religious community in our country. And for our loyalty, it seems now, that we are being punished. It is time that we make our voices heard in all of the real threats and those that are yet to come. We need to stand together and make sure that we still can be promoters of patriotism in a land founded on the protection of religious freedom.
When our country was established in the revolutionary freedom that we celebrate on July 4th, we recognize that our forefathers put out into the deep, not realizing completely what direction our country would take. They were convinced that the unity of our country would depend upon respect for the freedom of every individual, including religious freedom.
My brothers and sisters, my prayer is that this Fortnight for Freedom has helped to foster greater participation in civic life, so that we may become more aware and ask the Lord’s intervention to preserve our hard won freedom.