June 21, 2013

Religious liberty ain’t the Bishops’ job

By Rebecca Ryskind Teti *

The 2013 Fortnight for Freedom – two weeks of prayer, fasting and education to defend religious freedom between now and Independence day – kicks off today. Before you move on, confident the nation’s bishops are taking care of it, you might be interested to know Pope Francis is asking the laity to step up.

In recent with meetings with European political leaders (the President of Italy for example), the Holy Father has repeatedly stressed the need to defend religious liberty, which is in retreat all over the world. At the same time he has asked lay people to re-engage the political order, working with people of good will to promote justice for everyone.

In a recent homily to bank employees, the Pope said leaving the clergy to engage the culture is not Christian.

“…Do we rather ‘hope’ that the priest should speak, that the bishop might speak ... and what of us?” he asked, asking the faithful not to treat their Christianity as a matter of paperwork. “I was baptized, I made Confirmation, First Communion ... I have my identity card all right. And now, go to sleep quietly, you are a Christian.”

A church full of people like that is not a church, but a babysitter, the Pope complained.

It’s a note he’s sounded previously. Fr. Roger Landry reported on a 2011 interview in which then-Cardinal Bergoglio made a revealing comment:

“We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own disease. And the laity – not all, but many – ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path. We cannot fall into that trap – it is a sinful complicity.”

Clericalism – disrespecting the true role of the laity – not just a bad habit, a sin!

Why is the Pope concerned? Because the “role of the laity” we’ve been prattling on about for the forty years since Vatican II is not about who performs which minor function in the sanctuary (no disrespect to lectors and the like intended), but about about lay people transforming the secular world with the light of Christ through their personal witness and through their active engagement in culture, politics and the workaday world.

Archbishop Chaput recently made a similar point in an incisive interview with the National Catholic Register. The temporal order is the laity’s domain, not the clergy’s, he said:

“The secular world is the place where laypeople exercise their leadership most naturally. It’s the environment of their everyday lives and their primary mission field. Bishops can counsel and teach, but their role in practical political affairs like the fight for religious liberty can only be indirect and secondary.”

Decrying what he called a strong dose of “let Father do it” in American Catholic culture, he pointed out that clergy are actually quite limited in political and social influence for a number of reasons. Among them is that abstract ideas have no clout; only people do.

“Religious liberty… in the abstract… has very little power. It has political force only to the degree that ordinary people believe and practice their faith – and refuse to tolerate anyone or anything interfering with their faith.”

If individual believers won’t stand up for themselves when the government oversteps its bounds, infringing on their right not only to profess, but also to live out, their faith, then those rights will disappear.

“If laypeople don’t love their Catholic faith enough to struggle for it in the public square, nothing the bishops do will finally matter.”

I’m grateful for all the bishops are doing to defend ordinary citizens from having to squelch who they are and what they believe in order to hold jobs or run businesses or operate charities.

But I’m also a little ashamed they have to. It’s really our job.


• Here are 14 ways you can help your parish celebrate the Fortnight for Freedom.

• Find out more, get fact sheets, and learn how to spread the word on social media here.

Rebecca Ryskind Teti is Operations Coordinator for the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship at the Busch School of Business & Economics at CUA, though the opinions are her own. This column is modified from an earlier version that first appeared in Faith & Family  magazine.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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