Understanding the Basics...
...Defending a right
To the west of Nassau and Suffolk counties, a tower in lower Manhattan, rising ever higher into the sky, bears the name of that which makes this nation great: freedom. America is synonymous with freedom. It is the hallmark of our republic.
Living in the land of the free, we inherit a legacy of liberty passed down from our founders. They put forth clearly and succinctly what freedom entails, enshrining the basic rights of every American in our nation’s founding documents, most especially in the Bill of Rights. It was the genius of the American project to take what belongs to each person by virtue of their human dignity, their God-given liberties, and place these freedoms at the heart of a democratic society. In the United States, rights and freedoms were no longer the domain of rulers to parcel out. Here, those God-given rights were documented for all to see and none to snatch.
As believers, we hold especially dear our nation’s guarantee to religious freedom and freedom of conscience. When the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1789, this freedom had the distinction of being the First Amendment. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," our founders wisely declared. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty’s recent statement Our First, Most Cherished Liberty stresses the esteem with which those first citizens regarded this right.
"By the end of the 18th century, our nation's founders embraced freedom of religion as an essential condition of a free and democratic society. James Madison, often called the Father of the Constitution, described conscience as ‘the most sacred of all property.’ He wrote that ‘the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.’ George Washington wrote that ‘the establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the Motive that induced me to the field of battle.’"
With this appreciation of religious liberty firmly in place alongside other freedoms, the founders and a new nation set out on a bold experiment. Over the centuries, injustices in the application of our fundamental rights were overcome despite resistance and because of courage: freedom would no longer be conditioned by color; suffrage would belong to all. Setbacks came with growth, most egregiously when the fundamental right to life was denied to our most vulnerable, the unborn. However, as our union strove to become more perfect, respect for our fundamental rights, including our right to religious liberty and freedom of conscience, seemed assured. That is, until recently.
Writing recently in America magazine, Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon noted that in the United Sates, "Citizens of all faiths have long taken for granted the unique model of religious freedom that has enabled the nation’s diverse religions to flourish and to coexist in relative harmony." How true. Certainly on Long Island, where believers from every tradition live side-by-side, we can quickly overlook the gift of religious freedom that is ours. We can take for granted its splendor and forget the impact it has in shaping our nation and community.
Undoubtedly, America’s greatness is built upon hard work and daring. But there is more to the country than sweat and courage. Its greatness stems from the fact that people are free to be themselves, free to live life according to the dictates of their conscience. America’s proud heritage of religious freedom, though not always appreciated, has given the country a firm foundation. It has enabled people to be themselves and contribute that greatest gift—their total self, faith included—to the life of the nation.
Presently, however, Professor Glendon sees this vital freedom, so crucial to American life, as endangered. She warns, "Recent legal and political developments…suggest that the first freedom in our First Amendment may be en route to becoming a lesser right—one that can be easily overridden by other rights, claims and interests." Our first freedom is being reduced from the fullness it had in the eyes of our founders to freedom of worship. Freedom of conscience is being left behind. Two examples of this pattern stand out. They directly impact the charitable work of the Church:
In recent years, Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and the state of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the work of providing adoption or foster care services—by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both—because those Charities refused to place children with unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit or same-sex couples.
Notwithstanding years of excellent performance by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services in administering contract services for victims of human trafficking, the federal government changed its contract specifications to require the Church to provide or refer for contraceptive and abortion services in violation of Catholic teaching.
In both circumstances, by curtailing the robustness of our religious liberty and impinging on our freedom of conscience, America’s heritage of religious freedom is threatened. Unfortunately, these two instances are part of a bigger trend. More recently, and in an unprecedented manner, the federal government issued a mandate concerning contraception and sterilization which again threatens to limit our cherished first freedom.
On January 20, 2012, President Obama approved new regulations from the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that would require most private health insurers, including, with few exceptions, all Catholic employers, to cover sterilization, contraception and drugs that induce abortion, even if they have religious objections against doing so. Despite a so-called accommodation by the Administration on February 10, the sweeping HHS mandate stands today little changed. Some were satisfied with the President’s concession, but not our shepherds. Speaking for his brother bishops about the current regulations, Cardinal Dolan said, "We’re still as worried as ever."
In an unprecedented way, the Administration’s plan for better healthcare impinges upon the religious liberty of the nation’s citizens. The HHS regulations will both force religious institutions to facilitate and fund a product contrary to their own moral teaching and purport to define which religious institutions are religious enough to merit protection of their religious liberty. Upon taking effect next year, the mandate will force religious employers, like Catholic Health Services of Long Island and Catholic Charities, which provide services beyond the Catholic community, to violate their moral convictions and religious beliefs.
Some see the issue as concerning only contraception or sterilization, but it encompasses much more. As Archbishop-designate William Lori of Baltimore testified to Congress, "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."
Bishop Murphy makes clear what is at stake: our cherished freedom. "This mandate," he says, "directly interferes with the freedom of conscience of individuals and with the freedom of religious belief and practice of our Catholic institutions. The Administration has chosen to cast aside the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our nation’s first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty and free exercise of conscience."
The HHS mandate is alarming. It is the most recent infringement upon our nation’s understanding of religious freedom. It shrinks the grandeur of religious freedom that Americans have long valued as both freedom to worship and freedom of conscience. It continues a pattern that seeks to marginalize faith, making it a purely private matter, irrelevant tot eh shaping of the life of a nation.
The Health and Human Services mandate brings to the fore a fundamental question concerning the religious freedom that we cherish as Americans. What is it? Our shepherds offer a clear answer in their document Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.
"Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. 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 Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas."
The bishops spell out the risk the nation runs if our religious freedom is reduced to mere freedom of worship.
"What is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free, creative, and robust civil society—or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it. Religious believers are part of American civil society, which includes neighbors helping each other, community associations, fraternal service clubs, sports leagues, and youth groups. All these Americans make their contribution to our common life, and they do not need the permission of the government to do so. Restrictions on religious liberty are an attack on civil society and the American genius for voluntary associations.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America issued a statement about the administration's contraception and sterilization mandate that captured exactly the danger that we face:
Most troubling, is the Administration's underlying rationale for its decision, which appears to be a view that if a religious entity is not insular, but engaged with broader society, it loses its ‘religious’ character and liberties. Many faiths firmly believe in being open to and engaged with broader society and fellow citizens of other faiths. The Administration's ruling makes the price of such an outward approach the violation of an organization's religious principles. This is deeply disappointing.
This is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue.
One of the greatest characteristics that defines our nation’s heritage is the religious freedom that is granted to all Americans as a fundamental right by the Constitution of the United States. That right, as Professor Mary Ann Glendon points out, has served as the hallmark of a democratic society and "enabled this nation’s diverse religions to flourish and coexist in relative harmony." Expressing the implications of this freedom, Thomas Jefferson said it best when he assured the Ursuline Sisters of Louisiana in the early 1800s (who ran hospitals, orphanages, and schools) that the principles of the Constitution were a "sure guarantee" that their ministry – which served not only Catholics but people of all faith traditions – would always be "free to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference of civil authority."
This fundamental freedom, clearly articulated by President Jefferson, has been our country’s lifeblood. It has supported and nourished the foundation of who we are as a nation. It has enabled all believers to bring the experience of their Sabbath into the daily life of the nation. In short, it has allowed all to practice what they believe. It has enabled Catholics over the centuries to be about the works of charity our faith demands and minister to Christ in the least of our brothers and sister, regardless of their creed. This work continues today.
Catholic hospitals bring healing to countless people, including the poor, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged.
Catholic Relief Services aids millions of people in this country and abroad in the worst moments of their lives.
Catholic Charities works tirelessly in trying to reduce poverty, respond to the needs of the poor, and to build up healthy communities.
All of this, of course, was made possible because of our nation’s understanding of religious liberty. As Professor Glendon points out, even non-believers admit this fact. Jürgen Habermas, a German philosopher and atheist, says in An Awareness of what is Missing: faith and reason in a post secular age: "Among the modern societies, only those that are able to introduce into the secular domain the essential contents of their religious traditions which point beyond the merely human realm will also be able to rescue the substance of the human." Society, it is clear, must be open to faith, as our nation has been since its inception. The HHS mandate issued by the Obama Administration marginalizes religion and reduces religious liberty. In doing so, it also threatens to shatter the bedrock that enables every citizen – of every faith – to pursue life, liberty, and happiness according to the moral convictions prescribed by their faith. Defending our religious liberty means safeguarding America’s foundation.
Our Catholic faith is clear: Christ is present in his Church. What seems to many a mere institution is in fact a holy people. It is a mystical body that has Christ as its head. It is a pilgrim people that journeys to the Father. By baptism, it is us. And by Christ’s design, it is hierarchically ordered. This order, like any good order, ensures unity, vitality, and growth. Out of love, the Lord Jesus gave us, his body, overseers to teach, govern, and sanctify. Striving to be faithful imitators of Christ the Good Shepherd, those overseers, the bishops, lay down their lives in service so that God’s people may be built up and Christ proclaimed.
This basic teaching of our faith is important to remember amid the current conversation surrounding the HHS mandate. After all, there are many voices in the debate, even in the Catholic fold, and the tendency today is to treat the voice of the bishops as one among many. To do so though is to forget their Christ-given place among us. Bishop Murphy reminds us that the bishops speak for the Church. "There are many opinions among Catholics," he says, "but if you want to know what the Church teaches and what her faith demands, ask the bishops who, alone as the successors of the apostles in union with the pope, are the ones who can be trusted to offer, not an opinion, but the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church."
To assist them in their role as shepherds of the flock, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops formed an Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty in September 2011. The committee was charged with identifying threats made towards religious freedom and addressing the profound impact those threats would have on the faithful. Archbishop-designate William Lori of Baltimore was named as chair. Under his leadership, its members have worked closely with national organizations, charities, ecumenical and interreligious partners, and scholars to form a united and forceful front in defense of religious freedom for every American. Since January 2012 the committee has clearly articulated the specific ways in which the HHS mandate poses serious threats to America’s heritage of religious freedom and has shown how the mandate’s regulations impact Catholic institutions.
Recognizing the importance of educating the faithful in this matter, the committee has provided on its website various resources and legislative updates to help Catholics around the country stay informed. Most recently, the committee has issued a guiding document entitled Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty. In that statement, the overall sentiment is made clear in the opening lines: "We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both…To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other."
Discussing the current debate surrounding religious liberty kindled by the HHS mandate, Cardinal Dolan says, "This has not been a fight of our choosing. We’d rather not be in it. We’d prefer to concentrate on the noble tasks of healing the sick, teaching our youth, and helping the poor, all now in jeopardy due to this bureaucratic intrusion into the internal life of the church." While the Church would rather be about her works of charity, she has nevertheless stood on the front line of the battle for religious freedom, and her shepherds have been in the forefront. Individually and as a conference, the bishops have taken the lead and drawn the nation’s attention to the seriousness of the threat that the HHS mandate imposes on America’s rich heritage of religious freedom. They have illustrated for us the magnitude of the challenges that lie ahead if religious liberty is treated as a lesser right. But this battle for religious freedom cannot rest with the bishops alone, and they are the first to admit it.
In their recent document, Our First, Most Cherished Liberty, they say: "As bishops we seek to bring the light of the Gospel to our public life, but the work of politics is properly that of committed and courageous lay Catholics. We exhort them to be both engaged and articulate in insisting that as Catholics and as Americans we do not have to choose between the two. There is an urgent need for the lay faithful, in cooperation with Christians, Jews, and others, to impress upon our elected representatives the importance of continued protection of religious liberty in a free society."
Professor Glendon echoes the bishops. She says that as faithful Catholic Americans we too must "embrace our responsibility for bringing Christian principles to life in the secular sphere." The Second Vatican Council made clear that every Catholic – from the Pope right down to the person in the pew – has an obligation, by virtue of their baptism, to "remedy the customs and conditions of the world, if they are an inducement to sin, so that [everyone] may be conformed to the norms of justice and may favor the practice of virtue rather than hinder it" (Lumen Gentium 36). Archbishop-designate Lori expresses that sentiment more concretely: "It’s not enough for the bishops and leaders of Church institutions to clearly state our teaching; the government needs to hear from the lay faithful. The more [government leaders] see a unity and resolve on the part of the whole church, the less likely they are to try to impose such unjust and illegal rules."
History, Professor Glendon reminds us, has shown that successful resistance can in fact be "mounted by concerned citizens and courageous bishops…[so] religious leaders and citizens need not roll over and play dead when their basic freedoms are attacked." The fight has not been of our choosing, but it is every Catholic’s duty to respond and speak what we know to be the truth.
Almighty God, Father of all nations,
for freedom you have set us free in Christ Jesus (Gal 5:1).
We praise and bless you
for the gift of religious liberty,
the foundation of human rights,
justice, and the common good.
Grant to our leaders the wisdom
to protect and promote our liberties;
By your grace may we have the courage
to defend them,
for ourselves and for all those who live
in this blessed land.
We ask this through the intercession of Mary Immaculate, our patroness,
and in the name of your Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
with whom you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.