On the 4th of July, while most Washingtonians were enjoying cookouts and fireworks, nearly 5,000 Catholics celebrated instead at the closing mass of the “Fortnight for Freedom” at the National Basilica.
Catholic bishops had called for the two weeks leading up to Independence Day to be a period of prayer, education, and witness to the importance of religious freedom. Diocese nationwide responded with special liturgies, festivals, showings of “A Man for All Seasons”, and forums on the history of religious freedom. The Church even introduced a new texting campaign to keep Catholics informed on religious liberty issues.
Independently, lay Catholic groups like The Catholic Association (TCA) set out to reach people through social media to support the bishops’ effort. In an indication of the intensity of this issue, in a mere 4 weeks TCA built a vibrant Facebook community of nearly 100,000 people. Other groups saw similar results with their petitions, rallies, and social media campaigns.
Another sure sign of the Fortnight’s success is the reaction of those on the political Left. Partisans who support the President’s mandate requiring religious employers to provide free contraception and abortion-inducing drugs went into overdrive. Among others, Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and “Catholic” groups funded by George Soros and other “progressives”, pulled out the tired charge that the bishops’ efforts are part of “a right wing political agenda” and are guilty of politicking in an election year.
Should people of faith have to surrender their First Amendment rights just because it is an election year? Should battles over fundamental Constitutional rights wait until after elections are over? Remember the Church did not ask for this fight. Catholic educational, healthcare and charitable institutions were not seeking new government mandates and crippling fines. Rather it is the President who controls the timing and implementation of this policy.
The charge of being too political never seems to surface when bishops speak out for the rights of immigrants, budget cuts affecting the poor, or opposition to the death penalty. It would seem the Church is only accused of interference in affairs of State when one disagrees with the Church’s stance. Perhaps the “politics” are in the eye of the beholder.
Our nation has a long-standing, bipartisan tradition of including broad conscience protections in federal healthcare law. The conscience protections being sought by the Church are the same in principle and effect as those included in President Clinton’s healthcare bill— and were supported by Senator Ted Kennedy and then-Senator Joe Biden.
The Catholic Church is a major player in our nation’s civil society as the largest non-governmental provider of health care, education, and charity. Catholic Charities USA alone serves more than 9 million people each year. The Obama Administration is subjecting these organizations to crippling “Good Samaritan fines” starting at $2000 per employee per year. The Archdiocese of Washington D.C. employs over two thousand people in its inner city schools, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and other diocesan offices and thus faces fines starting at $4.2 million per year. Certainly in our pluralistic, democratic society it has the right to speak up in opposition to new draconian penalties.
These charges also fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Fortnight for Freedom, which was above all else a call to prayer. In announcing the initiative, the bishops called the Fortnight a “great hymn of prayer for our country,” inviting the faithful to engage in “prayers and fasting for a new birth of freedom in our beloved country.” Prayer is a powerful weapon, but it is not a political one.
Perhaps supporters of the President are justifiably concerned about his standing in the wake of this policy, though. At the Fortnight’s closing mass in Washington with its overflow crowd, the homilist Archbishop Charles Chaput reflected on the Gospel teaching to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s, “Real freedom isn’t something Caesar can give or take away. He can interfere with it; but when he does, he steals from his own legitimacy.”
Maureen Ferguson is Senior Policy Advisor for The Catholic Association. Previously, she was the Congressional Liaison and spokeswoman for the National Right to Life Committee. In that capacity, she appeared on numerous television interviews, including ABC World News Tonight, This Week, Nightline, CNN, Fox News, and C-SPAN, and was quoted in various print outlets as well.
Maureen and her husband have five young children, and split their time between their homes in New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.