[On the first Sunday of Advent, we pray in the opening prayer of Mass the following oration:

Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

As we look forward with the eyes of faith to the Second Coming of the Lord, we ask for the grace to live out our faith in righteous deeds of charity to others. These are the very deeds that Jesus speaks about in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. The following article is a practical reflection on the significance of this prayer in light of the challenges we now face as Catholics in the United States.]

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the “Emancipation Proclamation” that freed slaves in the southern states. The northern states had already taken action to abolish slavery fifty-nine years earlier. Finally, when the Thirteenth Amendment took effect in December 1865, slavery was abolished forever throughout the entire United States. Or was it?

Today, every year there are an estimated 17,000 vulnerable men, women and children trafficked across our borders and forced into slavery. They leave their homes and their families in hope of a better life in our country. Yet, when they come here, they find themselves in worse situations than at home. They are forced to work as prostitutes or to take arduous and demeaning jobs on our farms, in our factories, in our restaurants and even in our homes. They receive little or no pay. They are robbed of their human dignity and, all too often, beaten and abused. They are enslaved to their masters!

As Catholics, we can take pride in our work to eradicate this new form of slavery. For the past ten years, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken the lead on a national level to end this grievous abuse of our brothers, sisters and children. For six years, our bishops’ conference has provided services to rescue victims of human trafficking. More than 2,232 survivors of human trafficking and over 500 of their family members have been assisted. We can take satisfaction in the high praise given to the Catholic Church for this work. The U.S. Justice Department recently praised us by saying that the bishops have been “resoundingly successful in increasing assistance to victims of trafficking.”

In 2006, the federal government partnered with the Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by providing a $19 million grant for its work in assisting those trafficked for sex and labor. But now the Obama administration is not renewing this grant. Instead, Health and Human Services’ Office for Refugee Resettlement is awarding the grant money to groups which did not make the grade when judged by an independent review board. Why the change? Why has the exemplary work of the Church now been cast aside by the Obama administration?

On Sept. 29, 2012, Cardinal Dolan, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, informed the bishops that the administration was “requiring that [our Catholic] Migration and Refugee Services provide the ‘full range of reproductive services’ to trafficking victims and unaccompanied minors in its cooperative agreements and government contracts.” Put very simply: unless the Church provides abortions and contraceptives to victims of human trafficking, her help is no longer welcome by the present administration.

Factually, contraception and abortion are not a priority for these victims. Morally, the Church will not be forced to act against her principles. Realistically, there is another agenda at work, overriding the urgent need to lift victims from the misery to which human trafficking enslaves them.

Should we read anything into the fact that one of three politically appointed counselors has helped Health and Human Services come to their decision to withhold funding from our work? Are we to see any connection between this withdrawal of funds for a good work that the Church does and the mandate issued by the same Health and Human Services requiring Catholic Charities, Catholic universities and hospitals to provide contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization in their health coverage? And if they do not, then face penalties so severe that their good work would effectively be eliminated?

The government has narrowly defined the criteria for exemption from this mandate. First, the institution or group must have the inculcation of religious values as its purpose. Second, the institution or group must primarily employ individuals who share its religious tenets. Third, the institution or group must primarily serve persons who share its religious tenets. Fourth and finally, the institution or group must be a church as defined in the Internal Revenue Code. By setting up such stringent criteria, the result is clear. Not even the sisters of Mother Teresa qualify for an exemption.

Beneath these new rules that allegedly boast of providing women with “the full range of reproductive services,” there lurks the insidious de facto redefinition of the freedom of religion. Religion now is being defined solely as the right to worship within the walls of a church building. But, this is not religion at all, not even as defined by the Internal Revenue Service.

In November of 2009, the President replaced the all-encompassing “freedom of religion” with the narrowly defined “freedom of worship.” Speaking at Georgetown University in December of 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did the same in her speech on human rights. When she sounded one of this administration’s top priorities, advocacy for gays, she talked about the right “to love in the way you choose.” But, when she came to speak about the freedom of religion, she spoke only of freedom of worship.

Words are important. The freedom to worship is an exclusive term that relates only to the way people express their relationship with God inside the walls of the church. Freedom of religion carries the wider meaning of religious expression beyond the walls of the church into the public arena.

For us Catholics, as for many other devout believers, religion is worship; and, worship of God includes works of charity. The two are inseparable. We love God above all and we love him in all. We cannot allow some of our leaders to take away from us our God-given and constitutionally recognized right of full freedom of religion.

In the First Amendment, the Founders of our country wisely guaranteed that government could not prohibit the “free exercise” of religion which goes beyond the freedom of worship. However, this is not the narrative that some of our leaders are speaking. If this administration, or any other government, succeeds in restricting freedom of religion to the inside of the walls of our churches and homes, the works of charity, so essential to our practice of the faith, would suffer. Society would suffer as well.

Do we really want our government to restrict our right to practice our faith publicly? Are we ready to separate our good works from faith by letting the government redefine what religion truly is? Do we actually want the government to banish Catholic charity from the public place? Is this the choice America is making today?