"The challenge facing you, dear friends, is to increase people's awareness of the importance of religious freedom for society; to defend that freedom against those who would take religion out of the public domain and establish secularism as America's official faith."
Those challenging and so very prophetic words were spoken 17 years ago by Blessed John Paul II in Baltimore during his apostolic visit to our country. The Holy Father foresaw the great challenges to religious liberty that were on the horizon for us and he gave us an agenda to educate and raise awareness of the importance of religious freedom for society and to act in the defense of that freedom against those who would deny or restrict it.
Our Mass today concludes The Fortnight for Freedom. These two weeks were especially dedicated as a hymn of prayer for our nation and a national campaign of teaching and witness for our first, most cherished freedom, religious liberty. It is our duty as citizens and an obligation of our faith to resist firmly and clearly the variety of unprecedented intrusions which so clearly encroach upon the freedom of religion and freedom of religious conscience that unfortunately have become almost commonplace in the laws and regulations of our nation.
It is fundamental to Catholic teaching that human rights inhere in every human being as a gift from God. They are not awarded to us. They are not given to us by the government or by our founding documents. They are natural to us. Made in God’s image and likeness, persons possess natural rights. Governments may identify certain individual rights, but governments can never be thought to be the origin of our inalienable and irrevocable rights.
Some critics of religious liberty believe that the founders of our nation could not have intended what we claim to be religious freedom. This is an untenable position and let me tell you why. It is certainly true that some of the Founders were Deists – men like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Paine who doubted the inerrancy of Scripture and the divinity of Jesus. However it is clear from the personal writings of those who forged our new social order – whether or not they were personally religious - that they understood clearly the need for religion in a free society. Because they understood human nature and believed in a God, the Founders were able to develop an understanding of liberty that is as timeless as it is fruitful.
Put simply, our Founders understood that for a democracy to succeed, citizens had to be virtuous people. The best way to foster virtue in people is the practice of religion. They understood that religious freedom was essential not only for the good of the individual but also for the common good of society.
This is our American heritage. Religious liberty is the first freedom because if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are weakened and eventually lost. If our obligations and duties to God are impeded or, even worse, contradicted by the government, then we can no longer claim to be a land of the free and a beacon of hope for the world.
The history of many nations and even the history of some of our own American colonies, such as Maryland, teach us that freedom under the law and protection of God-given rights requires constant vigilance and protection or those freedoms disappear. The Fortnight for Freedom is only one response – organized nation-wide - to highlight our duty to be vigilant, to protest violations and to defend all our freedoms, especially religious liberty.
Primary among the attacks on religious freedom is the mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services which requires employers, including Catholic institutions, to violate the moral law by providing contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health plans. You will hear and read that the HHS mandate does grant an exemption to churches but it defines religious institutions in such a narrow way that it excludes, for example, Catholic universities, hospitals, food pantries, publishing houses, and social services. Most troubling is the administration's underlying rationale for its decisions. They take the position that if a religious entity is not insular but engaged with broader society, it loses its religious character. Indeed, according to the federal rule, if we serve people who are not Catholic in our agencies, or educate them in our universities, or employee them in our institutions – and we certainly do – then we cease to qualify for the religious exemption. If we provide for the needs of the sick and the poor, but don't require that they be Catholic or don't explicitly catechize them, we do not qualify.
While the HHS mandate has loomed large in the media spotlight, be very aware that it is only one of a number of equally offensive regulations. Other examples which clearly demonstrate that our religious freedom is endangered include: attempts by the government to alter church structures and internal governance; regulations by state's or by individual institutions of higher learning which limit the rights of Christian students on their campuses; government regulations that have caused major Catholic foster care and adoption services to close their doors; discrimination against small church congregations and discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services. This last government infringement requires us to provide or refer for contraceptives and abortion services victims of human trafficking. For years the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services has been recognized for its excellent and efficient programs for victims of human trafficking. Now because of altered federal regulations which contradict our moral convictions about the sacredness of unborn life, we are no longer eligible in administering contract services.
These have been the topics that have been analyzed and discussed during our seven parish-sponsored programs these past fourteen days. Allow me, please, to thank all those who were involved in preparing, hosting and presenting these programs. These evenings have been opportunities to teach and learn the truth about these critical issues we are facing today. Thanks also to all who participated in our parish programs. In today’s second reading Saint Paul instructed us to think about whatever is honorable, whatever is true, whatever is just. This is what we have been doing over this Fortnight and this is what we must continue to do in order to fulfill our duty toward God and country..
The federal government seems intent on redefining religious liberty as the freedom of worship. Throughout our American history those two phrases – freedom of religion and freedom of worship – have been synonymous. They have meant the very same thing. However, many of these threats represent a redefining of freedom of religion to mean that we are free only to say and do what our religion dictates within the walls of our churches. We are free to worship but not free to carry the fruits of that worship into the public square. Religious liberty is not only about our freedom to go to Mass on Sunday or pray with our family at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do without having to compromise that very same faith? Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of essential contributions made by many religious groups in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights and social services that religious Americans make every day both here at home and overseas.
In his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the works of charity are as essential for the church's mission as is preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. The Catholic Church can no more abandon the sick in our hospitals or the immigrant at the border than she can set aside the Word of God or the Holy Eucharist. We cannot separate the fruits of faith from the faith itself. The works of faith are not optional. They are not extras. They are essential. We care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the unemployed, the orphan, the expectant mother in distress, not only because it's a good thing to do but because of our faith. It is the necessary fruit of faith and without it faith is dead.
For all these reasons we cannot, we must not be passive or indifferent as we see freedom of religion spun to mean freedom from religion. This is not a Catholic issue. This is an American issue. This is not directly about contraception or abortion. This is not about imposing Catholic morality on the general public. But it IS about the exercise of religious freedom and purposeful attacks against it.
The gospel in today's Mass is taken from St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord sets the bar high when he tells us: "You must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect." The standards of the Sermon on the Mount stretch us. They take us beyond our normal desire to just be complacent and comfortable Christians. In this passage, our Lord uses dramatic language to get our attention. We need to have that kind of strong language to shake us up, to make us think, to make us recognize that we as Christians cannot simply drift along following the line of least resistance. We need to live our faith to the full.
Today with genuine gratitude, we celebrate, the birthday of our nation. We thank God for the rich legacy that has been handed on to us by generations of brave, self-sacrificing Americans. For our country, our freedoms, our mission in the world we give perfect thanks to the Father to the celebration of this Eucharist. At the same time we beg the Lord to give us wisdom and courage, insight and foresight that we might be responsible citizens and faithful Catholics in this confused time. Let us be radically open to the day-to-day graces God bestows on us so that with a renewed effort we might be willing to do everything we can to promote and protect religious freedom here in the United States and throughout the world. May God grant us a determination to do what we can by writing letters, making phone calls and sending e-mails to our government representatives informing them about our concerns about the shift in government policies regarding religious freedom and the definition of religious institutions. May God grant us a fuller conversion to be women and men of authentic Catholic faith who each in our own way proclaim the Gospel. May God grant us an increase in the virtue of true patriotism so that we might be faithful citizens committed to the common good of our land. But most of all, may God grant us a deeper reverence for the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist and a sincere passion to be bearers of Christ's truth and love.