Sunday, November 27, 2011

USCCB Concerned: Religious liberty threatened

The main point:

• Without the absolute insistence on repentance, one thing for sure is bound to happen: The distinction between virtue and vice, sin and merit, liberty and license will end up being blurred. And if these moral distinctions are confused, it is no wonder that Catholics, as a voting bloc, cannot connect the dots between values politicians hold and the policies that are sure to follow.

Daniel-Rops on the early Church: “The Church neither held her tongue nor capitulated. These voices of Christian liberty were noble and strong. There was Ossius of Cordova, the aged Spanish bishop, who wrote to the all-powerful [Emperor] Constantius: ‘You have no right to meddle in religious affairs. God has given you the authority over the Empire, but He has given us authority over the Church. In matters of faith it is you who must listen to our instructions.’”


Bishop Fulton Sheen, in his series of talks entitled, What Now America? expressed how truly exceptional the United States of America is. He said that Christians should be thankful that they do not have to worry about that "knock on the door." That "knock on the door," of course, is a reference to the political tyranny of Germany's Third Reich from 1933 too 1945. When Jews and other enemies of the State were sought out, S.S. soldiers often made their rounds in the neighborhoods, knocking on the doors of houses. Of course, if a family was hiding Jews from political authorities, "that knock on the door" was to be dreaded. Such an act of charity of hiding potential victims of the holocaust would cost the family their lives if they got caught.

To date, U.S. citizens have not had to fear that knock on the door by their government. However, recent measures taken by Federal and State authorities have the U.S. Bishops concerned that religious liberty is not a guarantee as it once was. In fact, in November of 2011 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took note of just that! The looming threat to religious liberty is a reality.

In addition to heeding the observations of the UCSSB, Catholics would do well to peer beneath the surface and examine the trends, in and outside the Church, which have contributed to the suppression of religious liberty. After all, the diagnosis of the problem determines how effective the prognosis and the cure will be. If we omit the former we will certainly err on the latter.

Bishop William Lori’s Address:

Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut addressed the General Assembly of Bishops on November 16th. The topic was religious liberty. By recalling the words from Ezekiel, he called upon his brother bishops to be watchmen: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 33:7) A watchman, as Pope St. Gregory the Great said, is a preacher who always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming.

To be sure, what is coming our way may not be that far off. In fact, it is at the Church’s doorstep. In his address Bishop Lori quoted Archbishop Dolan, who said the following a few days earlier: "Never before have we faced this kind of challenge in our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith and as a service provider. If we do not act now, the consequence will be grave."

Bishop Lori went on to cite several examples of how State and Federal governments are encroaching upon the freedom of religious entities. He said, “...the freedom of religious entities to provide services according to their own lights, to defend publicly their teachings, and even to choose and manage their own personnel is coming under increased attack.” Here are just a few examples of how aggressive secularism, to use his own words, is mounting unprecedented challenges to the free exercise of religion:

• A county clerk in New York State faces legal action because she refuses to take part in same-sex marriages.

• The 2009 attempt of members of the Judiciary Committee in Connecticut to re-organize parishes in a manner utterly opposed to Catholic teaching and law.

• The sad reality that many diocesan Catholic Charities have had to withdraw from adoption and foster care services because of our fidelity to the Church's teaching on marriage.

• The Department of Health and Human Services issued regulations that would mandate coverage of sterilization and contraception, including abortifacients, in all private health care plans.

• Contrary to conscience protections that are already a matter of law, CRS and MRS were told that a new condition for the renewal of cooperative agreements was the provision of a full-range of so-called reproductive services.

• The Department of Justice has attacked DOMA as an act of "bias and prejudice", akin to racism, thereby implying that churches which teach that marriage is between a man and a woman are guilty of bigotry.

• The Department of Justice has also argued before the Supreme Court for the virtual elimination of the First Amendment's "ministerial exception" which protects the freedom of religious denominations to choose their own ministers without state interference to say nothing of court decisions which have severely curbed the religious freedom of students to organize and maintain religiously based groups on college campuses.

Elsewhere in his address, Bishop Lori rightly stated that the right to religious liberty is prior to the state in that it comes from the hand of God. The duty of civil authority is to recognize this God-given right of the individual and religion. It further is bound to protect it from forces which might undermine it or violate it.

Appealing to the Founding Fathers, Bishop Lori went on to remind the assembly that the Establishment Clause was meant to protect the Free Exercise Clause, not the other way around. In other words, the constitutional mandate that the federal government shall not establish any particular religion was designed to protect religious freedom. The Establishment Clause, therefore, was never meant to purge the public square of religious expression. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church in America is, more than ever, defending itself against a government- both on a State and Federal level –that has become increasingly unfriendly to religious liberty. In quoting a distinguished jurist, Bishop William Lori hit on something very telling: If liberty dies in the hearts of men and women, “no constitution, no law, no court can save it.” Herein lies the problem which, in part, is to be found in our own backyard.

The Church: Past and Present

Purging a garden of weeds requires that the weeds be pulled up from their roots. The same applies to the forces which threaten religious liberty. Simply reacting to or complaining about that which endangers religious liberty is not enough. Catholics have to peer beneath the surface so that the diagnosis of the problem will bring about a cure. But first, our Lord said that any individual person seeking to remove a speck from his neighbor's eye has to take the plank out of his own eye first. What is true for the individual believer is also true for the body of believers.

Three questions should be asked about the current erosion of religious liberty at the State and Federal levels: How did we get here? How did we contribute to the problem? And how do we press forward? There are three considerations that just may help with the Church's efforts to preserve and strengthen religious liberty.

I. Tolerating Sin:

The first consideration is the sobering statistic that 54 percent of Catholics voted President Barak Obama in office in November of 2008. Without the Catholic vote, the prospects of him winning the presidential election would have been out of reach. Now, in no way do I wish to draw partisan politics into this conversation. But the glaring contradiction is this: The very politicians who are now violating religious liberties, and hence are undermining the mission of the Catholic Church in America, are the same politicians who were voted into office by scores of Catholics. In the case of President Obama, whose administration was alluded to in Bishop Lori’s address, the majority of Catholics made it possible for his policies to be enacted; chief among them are the regulations that would mandate coverage of sterilization and contraception, including abortifacients, in all private health care plans by the Department of Health and Human Services. This is a problem! Not simply a political problem, but a pastoral problem in the Church.

The truth is that the intolerance of good, i.e. religious liberty and the inalienable right to life, is always preceded by the tolerance of evil. That’s right right! Intolerance goes too far when it no longer tolerates the good. And tolerance goes too far when it admits evil. In other words, Christians tolerating evil paves the way for the dictatorial intolerance of the State. But how does the tolerance of evil manifest itself in the Church? The short answer is that the pastoral practices of the last five decades did not require nor insist upon repentance from sin (at least strongly enough) as a condition of receiving the Sacraments or being a Catholic in good standing. It needs to be said, however, that this is a departure from the pastoral teachings found in the New Testament, in the writings of the Church Fathers, and in Church tradition!

In ages past, cohabitating couples were required to repent from fornication (and the use of contraception) before the Church would even think about blessing their union; churchless parents who wanted to have their children baptized and confirmed had to first demonstrate good will by, at the very least, attending Mass every Sunday (After all, at the baptismal rite of their child, parents are required to verbally renounce Satan and all of his works. However, these are empty vows if the parents have no intention on coming to Mass the following Sunday); candidates wishing to enter into full communion with the Church were required to believe “all” that Christ taught and to live according to his precepts; and any high profile Catholic who stubbornly persisted in publicly violating basic human rights or who promoted the violation of basic human rights was, ipso facto, publicly reprimanded and if necessary- excommunicated!

Recall the words of St. Paul. He wrote to St. Timothy and said, “Reprimand publicly those who do sin, so that the rest also will be afraid.” (I Timothy 5:20) And to the Corinthians, he went so far as to say this: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people… But I now write to you not to associate with anyone named a brother if he is immoral, greedy, an idolater, a slanderer, a drunkard, or a robber, not even to eat with such a person…Purge the evil person from your midst." (I Corinthians 5:9, 11, 13)

Without the absolute insistence on repentance, one thing for sure is bound to happen: The distinction between virtue and vice, sin and merit, liberty and license end up being blurred. And if these moral distinctions are confused, it is no wonder that Catholics, as a voting bloc, cannot connect the dots between values politicians hold and the policies that are sure to follow.

When Pope St. Gregory the Great said that the tears of repentance must come before the waters of baptism, this was so that there would be, in the minds of Christians, a deep chasm between truth and error and between virtue and vice. With repentance from sin and an ongoing conversion to Christ and holiness, the distinction between good and evil is more firmly impressed upon the hearts and minds of believers! From this pastoral practice comes a far-reaching political consequence. Liberty from sin and spiritual darkness becomes the very foundation upon which liberty from political tyranny is secured. The former leads to the latter. Nevertheless, if repentance from sin and error is optional then the distinction between right and wrong will be muddled in the minds of Catholics. Liberty, then, will cease to find a firm place in our hearts. As a result, we will struggle to know who is a friend of liberty and who is not.

You see, the aggressive policies of the Obama administration were foreseeable. Well-formed Catholics knew that the cost of his election would be steep. For instance, recall the words of Cardinal Francis Stafford when, in a lecture delivered at Catholic University in November of 2008, he criticized President-elect Obama as “aggressive, disruptive and apocalyptic.” He went on to warn Americans that “For the next few years, Gethsemane will not be marginal. We will know that garden…” No doubt, the hastening erosion of religious liberty advanced by certain political forces was predictable and could have been prevented or at least abated. But that is water under the bridge. For now, we press forward with the lessons that we have learned.

II. Making the Argument:

The second consideration is this: The premise of the argument for religious liberty and the manner in which we communicate it is of vital importance. Traditionally, the Church has argued that human and civil rights are based on the rights of God. The premise was not just that religious liberty is rooted in the natural law, generally considered; but that the Lord has his prerogatives and that these prerogatives must be insisted upon by the authority of the Church. As Orestes Brownson, a nineteenth century Catholic author, wrote, “Man’s rights, whether social or individual, civil or political, are the rights of God in and over man and they can be maintained only by maintaining the rights of God, or, what is the same thing, the authority of the Church in the government of human affairs.” This truth is simple and easy to teach: Every human being is created by God, created for God and created in the likeness of God. As such, the individual citizen is, first and foremost, God’s possession, not the State’s! Without articulating that God’s rights over every human being is inviolable, religious liberty becomes too abstract and too obscure for the average citizen to appreciate. What is more, any other rationale is second best.

Religious liberty also hinges on the immortality of the soul. In his encyclical, On the Nature of Human Liberty, Pope Leo XIII wrote, "When, therefore, it is established that man's soul is immortal and endowed with reason and not bound up with things material, the foundation of natural liberty is at once most firmly laid." The material universe is governed by the laws of nature and animal behavior is determined by their natural instincts. However, the human soul is free to rise above both material determination and animal instincts. The doctrine on the soul’s immortality suggests that its origin, nature and destiny are of supernatural importance. To be sure, this God-given human dignity is something that the State cannot manipulate nor govern. It is there that line is drawn in the sand. And no doubt, we must draw it for all to see.

But if there is one ideology that undermines God’s rights and the dignity of the human person it is a radical, unchristian belief of equality. Here I am not referring to equality of persons; this kind of equality is biblical. The evil, egalitarian version of equality I am referring to insists upon that all religions are put on an equal plane. The problem is if they are all equal then they are equally unimportant. Again, to quote Pope Leo XIII, he warned Christians of the following: “To hold, therefore, that there is no difference in matters of religion between forms that are unlike each other, and even contrary to each other, most clearly leads in the end to the rejection of all religion in both theory and practice.” (On the Constitution of States) Such equality leads to universal apathy towards all religion. You cannot put Catholicism on equal par with other religions without undermining Catholicism any more than you can put the vice of lying and the virtue of honesty on the same level without the undermining honesty. One of the greatest offenses to God in the Old Testament was when his people put Him on the same level with other false gods. But this apostasy always came at a high price. What the Israelites learned is that false gods demand innocent blood (i.e. human sacrifices, barbaric warfare, and blood sports). The innocent never fared well. We, as Americans, should take note of this historic lesson.

Keep in mind that State neutrality towards Christ either does not exist for long or it does not exist at all. Christ himself said that you are either for me or against me. A government that is not for Christ will be against Him soon enough. The evidence of this is to be found in our public schools. Perhaps in the late 1960’s into 1970’s, after prayer and bible-reading were outlawed under the pretense of State-neutrality, public education was not openly hostile towards Christianity. But in recent decades, there is, undoubtedly, a strong bias against Christ, the Christian faith and the Christian roots of America.

On the other hand, the early Christians understood that the Holy Trinity, as the supreme and only God, had to be preached regardless of how offensive it was to the ancient pagans. False gods, including the cult of the State under which Roman Emperors were worshiped, were flat out rejected as demonic. In fact, it was in the second century, during the height of the persecution of Christianity, that the Gloria was inserted into the Divine Liturgy. If you recall, the Gloria exclaims to Jesus Christ with the following words:

For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

“You alone!” was their cry. This message was carried from the sanctuary into the public square. There was no other way to sanctify the cruel pagan world of ancient times. Honesty was the best policy then as it is now.

III. Watchmen and Wolves

The third consideration is something Bishop William Lori said in his address to the General Assembly. He made a reference to the bishops as being "watchmen," which, as stated previously, is a reference to Ezekiel 33:7. The Bishop of Bridgeport, Connecticut goes on to cite a passage from a sermon given by Pope St. Gregory the Great. It reads, "Note that a man whom the Lord sends forth as a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming…" Indeed, the shepherd’s duty of being a “watchman” was a common title given to bishops in the early Church. It invokes manly qualities of courage, boldness of speech and a spirit if sacrifice. When the salvation of souls and the interests of the Church were threatened, watchmen of the flock did not hesitate to eliminate the threat; neither did they curry favor with the powerful out of fear.

Furthermore, weakness and timidity were discouraged in the formation of priests by the early Church Fathers. As Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote in his book, Pastoral Rule, “Often, indeed, incautious rulers, being afraid of losing human favor, fear to speak freely of what is right, and, in the words of the Truth, do not exercise the zeal of shepherds caring for the flock, but serve the role of mercenaries; for when the wolf appears, they flee and hide themselves in silence.”

Catholic historian, H. Daniel-Rops, characterized these watchmen in the following manner: “The Church neither held her tongue nor capitulated. These voices of Christian liberty were noble and strong. There was Ossius of Cordova, the aged Spanish bishop, who wrote to the all-powerful [Emperor] Constantius: ‘You have no right to meddle in religious affairs. God has given you the authority over the Empire, but He has given us authority over the Church. In matters of faith it is you who must listen to our instructions.’”

St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, reminded Roman Emperor Theodosius II: “Remember you are a mortal!’ And St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, said that, ‘The power of the Church surpasses that of the civil power in the same way as the heavens surpass the earth, or rather, even more so…’” Heroism needs to be inspired by heroic ideals. The Fathers of the Church provided just that. These men, as Daniel-Rops noted, neither held their tongue nor were they servile towards civil authority. They acted and spoke with the fortitude only Christ can give. To be sure, sometimes it cost them their lives. But they were celebrated as heroes for centuries to come.

As we approach the twentieth century, however, Christians settled into a comfortable routine. Of course, there were plenty of exceptions to this. But during the interim of two world wars in 1925, Pope Pius XI was well aware that Christianity had lost momentum in Western Civilization; Europe was still unsettled from the ravages of World War I; the Communistic Russian Revolution of 1917 had begun to solidify; and a powerful dictator by the name of Adolf Hitler was in the making. In short, aggressive Secularism and totalitarianism was on the rise. In his encyclical, On the Feast of Christ the King, Pope Pius XI pointed out one of the factors that made this possible. He said, “This state of things may perhaps be attributed to a certain slowness and timidity in good people, who are reluctant to engage in conflict or oppose but a weak resistance; thus the enemies of the Church become bolder in their attacks.” Evil men grow strong only when good men grow weak and timid.

This is why if religious liberty is to be preserved, it is imperative that Christians, especially our watchmen, call a spade a spade and identify the agents of religious persecution. Consequently, two questions must be asked: Who is suppressing religious liberty? And where are they coming from? These are two questions that must be answered forthrightly, and yes, publicly.

By making the three considerations, as stated above, a reality- namely, (1) Insisting on repentance from sin and error within the Church, (2) Making the argument for religious liberty based on God's rights and (3) The Church's watchmen courageously pointing out the wolves for all to see -a union of minds and the uniformity of action among Catholics are sure to follow; then, and only then, will the Gospel truths of life, liberty and happiness take hold once again in America.