The Fortnight for Freedom 2016 began on June 21st and will conclude on July 4th. During these two weeks, the Church in the United States prays for, and reflects on, religious freedom. I am reminded of Pope Francis’ words at the Welcoming Ceremony at the White House this past September. He said:
With countless other people of good will, American Catholics are concerned that efforts to build a just and wisely ordered society respects their deepest concerns and their right to religious liberty. That freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions. And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.
Religious freedom is indeed one of our nation’s most precious possessions. We enjoy the right to worship God as our consciences dictate. In some places in the world, people do not enjoy this right; indeed, some are killed for worshipping God according to their faith and their places of worship are destroyed. We have seen this tragedy in places like Iraq and Syria.
Religious freedom is more than the right to worship or to have private devotions. Authentic religious freedom is the liberty to live one’s faith publicly and the freedom to serve. During this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are reminded of our call to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The Church is called to be an agent of mercy in society. We do so through our individual acts of charity and also through organized charity in our Catholic parishes, schools, health care institutions, Catholic Charities, and many other Catholic organizations. Our Christian vocation requires us to care for the sick, the suffering, the poor, and the vulnerable. Yet, we increasingly face challenges from powerful groups and from government seeking to force us to violate our own beliefs if we are to engage in these works of mercy and charity. The HHS mandate is a prominent example of this unjust intrusion on authentic religious liberty.
Speaking of religious liberty at Independence Hall in Philadelphia this past September, Pope Francis said:
Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Because religion itself, the religious dimension, is not a subculture; it is part of the culture of every people and every nation.
The Catholic Church and other churches and religious communities have been a great force for good in the United States. Our Catholic hospitals, schools, and charities serve millions of people and contribute to the welfare of our nation. Today, however, there are some who wish to privatize religion and to silence the Catholic Church and other voices of faith in the public square. This secularist ideology which often proclaims tolerance is, in truth, intolerant of those with traditional Christian convictions. They promote a new form of discrimination. We’ve seen this not only in the HHS mandate for sterilization, contraception and abortion-inducing drugs, but also in the forcing of Catholic Charities out of adoption and foster care services for refusing to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabitate. Our USCCB Migration and Refugee Services, despite its excellent performance evaluations, lost its federal contract for serving victims of human trafficking because of our refusal to refer for contraceptive and abortion services.
Pope Francis has used the term “polite persecution” to refer to these threats to religious liberty in the United States and Europe. According to the Holy Father, this is when someone is persecuted not for confessing Christ’s name, but for wanting to demonstrate the values of the Son of God. This involves the social marginalization of Christians who, faithful to the Gospel, dissent from some cultural trends and movements.
During this Fortnight for Freedom, it is good for us to reflect on these threats or compromises to religious liberty right here in our own country. For example, some are trying to force Catholic hospitals to provide abortions and who have even filed lawsuits to do so. Thankfully, they have thus far not been successful. We need to support strongly the Conscience Protection Act, presently before Congress, to protect individual and institutional health care providers who object to abortion. We must be ever vigilant in the face of recurring attempts to force us to violate our beliefs in our individual lives and in our institutions.
It is important during the Fortnight for Freedom also to remember our brothers and sisters in the world who are suffering violent persecution for their faith. We must not be indifferent to their plight. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are living in a new age of martyrs. I will never forget the pictures of the young Coptic Christians in Libya in orange jumpsuits when they were about to be beheaded by ISIS early last year. These 21 martyr saints, before their barbaric killing, only cried out “Jesus, help us.” Their crime was their Christian faith, accused by the Islamic terrorists of being “people of the cross.”
During this Fortnight, let us pray for our brothers and sisters who are victims of violent persecution in the Middle East, Africa, and other areas of the world. Some of the most ancient Christian communities of the world are being annihilated: in Syria, Iraq, and Iran. It was only recently that the U.S. State Department was convinced, thanks to the efforts of the Knights of Columbus and others, to declare the violence against these Christians a “genocide.” I invite all to support the Church’s efforts to aid these Christian communities and the many refugees from these countries through Catholic agencies like Catholic Relief Services, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, and Aid to the Church in Need.
The tragic situation faced by so many of our Christian brothers and sisters and other religious minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world demands our attention. ISIS and other extremist groups invoke the name of God to commit violence and to kill. As Pope Francis teaches: Authentic religion is a source of peace and not of violence! No one must use the name of God to commit violence! To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman. Let us continue to pray for an end to this insidious violence and brutal persecution.
Finally, let us not grow tired in our efforts to protect religious liberty at home and abroad. May we always cherish the gift of religious freedom, the first of human rights, a gift given to us by God our Creator!