On June 21, the night before the Catholic Church traditionally remembers the martyrdom of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More at the hands of King Henry VIII, American Catholics will begin a unique two-week vigil of prayer, sacrifice, and public witness for the cause of religious liberty.
The “Fortnight for Freedom” was called by my brothers in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and it will conclude with the ringing of bells in churches all across the country on July 4, the memorial of our country’s independence. The bishops aren’t comparing the conditions of the American church in the early 21st century with that of Catholics persecuted during the English Reformation. We’re blessed in our country with a religious liberty that, sadly, most people in the world today do not enjoy. According to the Pew Center, three out of four people worldwide live in a country where the government doesn’t protect their right to worship and serve the God they believe in.
This global context puts the Catholic Church’s current conflict with the U.S. government in some perspective. But just because believers today aren’t executed for their beliefs and are free to go to church on Sundays, that doesn’t mean freedom of religion isn’t in jeopardy in America.
For our country’s founders—and for every American generation until now—freedom of religion has meant much more than the freedom to worship. Freedom of religion has meant the freedom to establish institutions to help us live out our faith and carry out our religious duties. Freedom of religion has meant the freedom to express our faith and values in political debates—and the freedom to try to persuade others to share our convictions.
In recent years, many have observed that our American consensus on religious liberty, conscience protection, and religion’s public role has been eroding. There are many causes for this. The first is the reality of religious indifferentism or “practical atheism”—the fact that growing numbers of people in our society are living as if God doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. There’s no reason to care about religious freedom if you don’t care about being religious.
But our freedoms are also being eroded as the result of constant agitation from de-Christianizing and secularizing elements in American society. In the public arena, we’ve seen relentless efforts to get Church agencies to go along with secular agendas that violate Catholic beliefs—from trying to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions and sterilizations, to trying to coerce Catholic adoption agencies to place children with homosexual couples.
In our wider culture, Christian faith and values are increasingly portrayed—in the media, in the courts, even in comments from high government officials—as a form of bigotry. In our diverse, pluralistic society, it seems sometimes that Christianity is becoming the one lifestyle that can’t be tolerated to have a role in public life.
These same secularizing and de-Christianizing forces are at work in our current conflict with the federal government’s health insurance mandates. No one can credibly claim that this conflict with the government is about access to abortion and birth control, because unfortunately, both are widely available and affordable to anyone who wants them in this country, often subsidized by federal and state governments.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that our present conflict is part of a larger cultural struggle to redefine America as a purely secular society—a society in which religious institutions have no legitimate public role unless they are serving the government’s purposes.
This struggle to secularize America has been going on for a long time. What’s new is that our government, which is entrusted with the duty to protect religious liberty, has now taken sides against the liberty of the nation’s largest religious community. In this present conflict, our government is using the full weight of its powers to try to dictate the terms under which the Catholic Church and individual Catholics will be permitted to participate in our society. For perhaps the first time in our history, our government is acting as if our human rights don’t come from the hand of God, but are instead “benefits” that the government can bestow, define, and take away.
I’ve had well-meaning people ask me: Why has this conflict become so important to the Church? Why won’t we just “compromise” and provide birth-control insurance to our employees? They want me to know that this would be a small price to pay for the greater good of the Church being able to keep serving the poor in her hospitals, schools, and charities.
I agree that this has been a needless and unprovoked distraction for the Church. Catholic institutions have been forced at many levels to divert time, energy, and resources better spent serving the poor to defending ourselves against this unwarranted threat to our freedom from our own government.
But the Church doesn’t serve the poor to please the government. We serve the poor because we are compelled by the love of Christ. This same love for Christ compels us to bear witness that life, marriage, and family are sacred and that preventing children from being born is immoral. So the “compromise” we’re being offered is no compromise at all. It’s capitulation. It’s the temptation to serve the government instead of God.
So what do we do now? We do what the Church and individual Christians have always done: We love our enemies and resist their evil with good. We live our faith with the freedom of the children of God, in season and out of season, with a love that serves and heals and inspires. We redeem the time and tell the world the good news that God is alive and that he is calling us to a great destiny of love. We keep working with men and women of good will to create a society of mutual sharing, reconciliation, and love, rooted in the sanctity of the human person and the family.
In short, we continue to be followers of Jesus. And in this fortnight of prayer and action, we should reflect on the beautiful example of the many saints who defended the faith to the point of shedding their blood. By their dying, they show us what we should be living for.
José H. Gomez is the Archbishop of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest Catholic archdiocese. He writes regularly at www.facebook.com/ArchbishopGomez
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