“To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other,” they said in an April 12 statement entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.”
The U.S. bishops’ ad hoc committee for religious liberty, led by Archbishop-designate William E. Lori, warned that religious freedom is threatened by an array of laws, ranging from the Obama administration’s recent contraception mandate to a series of state laws that prohibit Christian charity to undocumented immigrants.
They issued an “urgent summons” to U.S. Catholics, especially the laity, and called for a two-week national campaign of prayer, fasting and public action for religious freedom in America.
Both the teachings of the Catholic faith and foundational principles of the U.S. Constitution agree that the allegiances of Catholic Americans, although distinct, should be complementary rather than contradictory, they said.
Threats to Religious Liberty
In their April 12 statement, the bishops warned of numerous concrete threats to religious liberty in America today.
Bishops from every diocese in the U.S. have spoken out against the unprecedented new mandate issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that will force employers to facilitate and fund health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, even if doing so violates their firmly-held religious beliefs.
In addition, several state laws prohibit “harboring” undocumented immigrants through acts of Christian charity and pastoral care. The Catholic, Episcopal and Methodist bishops of Alabama filed suit against a law that would prohibit priests from baptizing or preaching to undocumented immigrants, prevent them from hearing their confessions, and make it illegal to assist, allow or encourage them to attend Mass, Bible studies, religious counseling or even Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
The bishops also pointed to a 2009 attempt by a committee of the Connecticut legislature to change the structure of Catholic parishes to a congregational model, prefiguring the federal government’s more recent push to redefine “religious minister” and “religious employer,” an effort that was unanimously rejected by the Supreme Court in January 2012.
They also observed that Catholic Charities has lost its contract or license to provide adoption and foster care services in numerous areas because they would not place children in the care of same-sex couples or cohabiting couples of the opposite sex.
In New York City, the bishops pointed to a rule that banned churches from renting public schools for weekend worship services, even though non-religious groups could rent them for other uses.
A final violation that the bishops highlighted was the Obama administration’s decision to disqualify the Church’s Migration and Refugee Services program from a government contract to aid human trafficking victims. The move came after the federal government changed its contract specifications to require applicants to provide or refer for contraception and abortion, which violate Church teaching.
More Than Freedom of Worship
The bishops emphasized that religious freedom is more than merely the freedom to worship, but includes the ability to “make our contribution to the common good of all Americans.”
They warned that all citizens will suffer if the work of religious Americans in education, health care, aid to the poor and other social services is stifled.
This is “not a Catholic issue” but “an American issue,” they insisted.
Religious citizens are not asking for “special privileges and benefits,” they observed, but merely for their God-given religious freedom to contribute to the common good to be respected.
The bishops then explained the distinction between conscientious objection – which allows relief from a just law for reasons of conscience – and an unjust law, which is not a true law, and cannot be obeyed.
Americans cannot seek a mere “accommodation” from unjust laws, but “must have the courage not to obey them,” they said.
Acknowledging “the much graver plight” of Christians around the world, they also warned that if “religious liberty is eroded here at home, American defense of religious liberty abroad is less credible.”
“Urgent need” for renewed energy
In response to the situation, the bishops called for the special observance of a “fortnight for freedom” from June 21 to July 4, calling on their fellow bishops and other religious institutions and leaders to arrange local events to emphasize the importance of religious liberty.
They noted that during this two-week period leading up to Independence Day, the Church’s liturgical calendar celebrates “a series of great martyrs” who were oppressed by political powers.
They also encouraged clergy to use this year’s Nov. 25 Solemnity of Christ the King, a feast that originated in “resistance to totalitarian incursions against religious liberty,” to preach boldly about religious freedom.
Acknowledging that “the work of politics is properly that of committed and courageous lay Catholics,” the bishops urged the active involvement of the laity in defending Americans’ religious liberty.
The bishops also made a specific appeal to writers, artists, producers, publishers, filmmakers and bloggers to “use their skills and talents in defense of our first freedom.”
They recalled the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who stressed “the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity” to defend the participation of faithful individuals in the American public square.