As we approach the celebration of the Fourth of July, we have already begun the “Fortnight for Freedom” invoked by the U.S. bishops as a two-week period of prayer and reflection upon the freedom of religion which we possess in our great nation. The fortnight, which began June 21 and will conclude July 4, is an opportunity for us to come together across the nation and to celebrate what Pope Benedict XVI has referred to as the “most cherished of American freedoms” – religious liberty. It is also a time for us to be keenly aware of and to stand firm in countering the threats that are weakening our treasured right to practice and live our faith as is the birthright of our nation.
We can clearly perceive the threat to this most cherished freedom in the mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to facilitate and fund abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception in the insurance policies provided through the Catholic Church. However, this is not the only threat to religious liberty and is part of the overall tendency to misunderstand what religious liberty is, as well as what it means for a person to practice one’s faith.
This threat is also perceived in other limitations upon Church outreach to families, immigrants, victims of human trafficking, the infirm and the needy because of our unwillingness to provide what is contrary to our moral teachings and convictions. The threat to religious liberty is much larger than any single issue. It is also not a “Catholic,” issue but one that is fundamental to all men and women of all faiths within our nation as American citizens. It is an “American” issue.
We are very blessed to live in a country where our freedom is protected. Religious freedom is the most basic of all our freedoms and is first in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. Religious liberty is the basis for the founding of our country and the very reason that the Pilgrims fled to our shores and sacrificed their lives. Because we have lived in times in which this freedom has not been challenged, it is too easy to take for granted this right for which so many before us struggled and even died.
For many reasons of culture and philosophy, the understanding of religion and its practice is becoming obscured in our society and so there are real threats now present which we have not faced in recent times. Religious faith and its practice cannot be taken for granted and we must be resolved in our defense of our cherished freedom to practice our faith, especially in the context of a secular culture which many times is opposed to its basic beliefs.
History has witnessed many instances of blatant disregard for religious liberty which has resulted in devastating persecution. The calendar of the Church’s liturgical year is marked with frequent celebrations of martyrs who have stood firm in the practice and profession of their faith. The Lord himself warned of persecutions against his message that would ultimately lead to the giving up of one’s life. How blessed we have been not to have lived in such times because of the protections granted to us in our nation and its founding philosophy. That is why we cannot be naïve or silent in the face of what now undermines our freedom to practice our faith in accord with our moral convictions.
Catholics should consider offering days of penance during the Fortnight for Freedom on which they abstain from meat or take part in another form of penance. We should also study and reflect upon our religious freedom and the threats posed to it by reading the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement, “Our First Most Cherished Liberty,” as well as the many other materials available through the special USCCB website, www.fortnight4freedom.org and on our own diocesan website, www.diocesepb.org. These are but some of the ways that we as individuals and as parish communities can participate in this Fortnight for Freedom, giving thanks for the gift of religious liberty and standing firm in opposition to threats against it.
We can never underestimate the importance of making our voices heard in the many ways that are available to us by contacting our representatives and legislators to legitimately voice our position. This is especially critical in the matter of the HHS mandate.
As we approach July 4 we are encouraged to celebrate the freedom on which our forefathers founded this country and for which many gave their lives. Our religious freedom is the first among our rights and we must be aware of the threats that are being posed to it today. No one is more the guardian of our rights and freedom than the Lord himself. He came into this world to set us free. Out of his infinite love for us, Christ came among us and took our human nature to himself to give it an even greater dignity.
He became one of us so that we might realize the truth of our existence as free men and women made in the image and likeness of God. Christ restored our freedom in the fullest way. As we celebrate this Fortnight for Freedom, his words are clearly before us, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:31)
Our nation was founded on the basis that every person would be able to worship God freely and practice their faith without restraint from the government. May we continue to stand united in prayer for our nation and our religious liberty and may the truth keep us free.
Reprinted with permission from the Florida Catholic, official newspaper for the diocese of Palm Beach, Florida.