July 7, 2017

Editorial

Stewards of our first, most cherished liberty 

“We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both, grateful for the gift of faith which is ours as Christian disciples, and grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens. To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other. … That is the vision of our founding and our Constitution, which guarantees citizens of all religious faiths the right to contribute to our common life together. Freedom is not only for Americans, but we think of it as something of our special inheritance, fought for at a great price, and a heritage to be guarded now. We are stewards of this gift, not only for ourselves but for all nations and peoples who yearn to be free.”

In 2013, the bishops of the United States issued a statement on religious liberty titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.” In this statement, the American bishops described why religious liberty is central to everything we stand for as Catholics and as Americans. They also let it be known that as Catholics and as Americans we are stewards of the gift of religious liberty called to “take care of” and “share” this precious gift with all our fellow Americans and with our sisters and brothers throughout the world.

 The observance of our annual “Fortnight of Freedom” from June 21 through July 4 was a vivid reminder of this stewardship responsibility. June 21 is the day we remember SS. Thomas More and John Fisher, who were martyred for their insistence on the rights and duties of an informed conscience.

July 4, Independence Day, is our annual celebration of the patriots who gave their lives for the freedoms we Americans enjoy today—including the freedom of religion.

As Pope Francis observed in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”), “Religion cannot be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life” (#183).

When religious liberty is ignored or abused, all people suffer. All people regardless of their religious preferences (or lack of them) are deprived of the essential contribution that religious people and institutions make to the common good—in family life, education, health care, ministry to the hungry, homeless and underemployed. All are denied the advocacy for social justice and civil rights that religion promotes locally, nationally and globally. Religion is integral to humanity and to society. To deny religious liberty is to dehumanize individuals, families and communities.

Religious liberty has been under attack here in America for decades. Sometimes the anti-religious liberty forces have been subtle and indirect. Other times, they have been blatant in their attempts to deprive religious people and organizations of their basic rights.

According to Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, action taken by the Supreme Court on June 26 in the case of Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, was a “landmark victory” for religious freedom.

The nation’s highest court ruled that the exclusion of churches from an otherwise available public benefit violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Archbishop Lori observed that “the Supreme Court rightly recognized that people of faith should not be discriminated against when it comes to government programs that should be made available to all.”

Most Americans would agree that it makes no sense to deprive school children of access to a “softer and safer playground surface” simply because the school they attend is owned and operated by a religious institution. But the forces of opposition to religious freedom are strong in our country today, and their impact on daily life is pervasive.

 At their summer meeting in Indianapolis on June 14-15, the U.S. bishops celebrated advances that have been made in the fight to defend religious liberty, but they also warned that the war is far from over. Especially overseas, the persecution and martyrdom of individuals, families and communities continue at a horrific rate. Here at home, secularism continues to exercise enormous influence over government policies, legislation and culture.

To be forthright about your faith—especially when aspects of what we believe are, at best, politically incorrect and, at worst, in direct conflict with the established law of the land—the importance of conscientious objection becomes increasingly clear. As individuals, all Americans must be free to follow their conscience when it comes to defending human life and dignity. But so must our organizations and institutions.

Ours is a pluralistic society. That means we don’t force people to think, act or believe as we do. We are a tolerant people—within the limits of human decency and the common good. But tolerance is a two-way street. Fairness and equality must apply to everyone—with liberty and justice for all.

 Let’s join the American bishops in applauding recent decisions that serve to reinforce “our first, most cherished liberty.” But let’s not forget that this battle is not won “once and for all.”

Every generation must fight the battle for religious liberty. Let’s take seriously our role as stewards of these freedoms. Let’s continue to pray, advocate and vote for religious liberty for all God’s people everywhere.

—Daniel Conway

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