.- To renew respect for religious freedom in society, the Church needs lay people who live out their religious beliefs with love, said Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C.
“Your faith is a remedy for what ails our society,” the cardinal said in his July 4 homily at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Thousands of the faithful gathered at the Washington, D.C., basilica on Independence Day for the closing Mass of the 2013 Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week period of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom.
Mounting threats to religious freedom in 2012 led the U.S. bishops to call for the first Fortnight for Freedom. Now in its second year, the event has gained the support of organizations and religious groups from a variety of faiths and denominations.
Among the threats to religious liberty that have generated recent concern is the federal HHS mandate, which requires employers to offer health insurance covering contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can cause early abortions.
After months of protest, a modified version of the mandate will soon go into effect for many religious employers who object to its demands. Some religious organizations have argued that even in its modified form, the mandate forces them to cooperate in actions that violate the teachings of their faith, thereby threatening their religious freedom.
Religious liberty concerns have also been raised in connection to a redefinition of marriage and through restrictions on religious activity in areas including health care, humanitarian aid and immigration.
In his homily, Cardinal Wuerl emphasized that the United States was founded on the principles of “equality and liberty,” recognizing “that those rights were bestowed on us by God.”
He reflected on the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, who were men from “all walks of life and backgrounds.”
These men, he observed, practiced professions ranging from lawyer to merchant to farm owner. They were members of different faiths, including Congregationalist, Deist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Quaker, Unitarian and a single Catholic.
“From many different backgrounds, representing many religions, they stood united for liberty.”
Throughout the years, he said, “we have all recognized the importance of religious faith in a free and democratic society.”
But today, this robust respect for religious liberty is threatened, the cardinal warned. “The Church is denounced as prejudiced, narrow-minded or even un-American simply because her teaching respects human life, upholds marriage and calls for health care for the most needy in our country.”
“There have always been those who want to lock doors so the voice of the Gospel cannot be heard,” he said, pointing to a recent example of efforts to silence a Catholic chaplain at George Washington University who shared Church teaching on marriage to students who came to Mass.
But despite voices claiming that religion has no place in public dialogue, Cardinal Wuerl explained that to speak out on Catholic teaching “is not to force values upon our society, but rather to call our society to its own, long-accepted moral principles and commitment to defend basic human rights.”
The teachings of the Church come from “elements that we find deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” he noted. “Just because someone wants to change all of that today does not mean that the rest of us no longer have a place in this society.”
The cardinal pointed to a warning issued by Pope Benedict XVI to the U.S. bishops in early 2012. The former pontiff had voiced concern over a “radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres,” particularly in the serious threats to religious freedom within the country.
Benedict XVI suggested that a response to this problem must be found in “an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity,” Cardinal Wuerl pointed out, stressing that it is the mission of all Catholics, “but particularly of the laity is to engage the culture with the Good News that only comes from Jesus Christ.”
He urged the laity to respond to cultural threats with the love of Christ and “to stand up for what is right, to stand up for what is ours, to stand up for freedom of religion.”
“That new life in Christ, that living out of our faith, is reflected not only in our worship and in our personal acts of charity, but in our Church’s educational, health care and social ministry outreach,” he said. “Those works, those acts of faith, are threatened whenever our religious freedom is eroded.”
The cardinal encouraged those present to pray in thanksgiving “for the gift of life and for the freedom to love and worship.”
In addition, he said, the faithful should ask the Lord “for the courage boldly and joyfully to stand in protection of our freedom so that we may continue to live out our faith and transform the world in which we live.”
While the task may seem daunting, he acknowledged, the strength of the Church does not lie in “our individual resolve or limited resources” but in the cross of Christ, who “has already won the final victory.”