Tomorrow (Saturday) begins the Fortnight for Freedom, a two-week period of prayer leading up to Independence Day, during which the bishops of the United States (USCCB) invite us to pray for, make sacrifices for, and grow in our understanding of the gifts of life, Marriage and religious freedom. The Fortnight for Freedom’s original impetus was the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that employers, including religious employers (with a small exception of employees of church buildings, but not including the employees of other religious agencies), must provide contraceptive (including abortifacient drugs) services and sterilization operations to employees covered through the health insurance policies required by the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as “Obamacare”). The bishops also complain that the federal government has seen fit to be the arbiter of “which religious institutions are ‘religious enough’ to merit protection of their religious liberty.”
The website of the USCCB lists other threats to religious liberty in our country at this time, besides the HHS mandate:
— “Catholic foster care and adoption services. Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, and the State of Illinois have driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services — by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both — because those charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried opposite-sex couples who cohabit.
— “State immigration laws. Several states have recently passed laws that forbid what they deem as ‘harboring’ of undocumented immigrants — and what the Church deems Christian charity and pastoral care to these immigrants.
— “Discrimination against small church congregations. New York City adopted a policy that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services, even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for many other uses. Litigation in this case continues.
— “Discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services. After years of excellent performance by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) in administering contract services for victims of human trafficking, the federal government changed its contract specifications to require MRS to provide or refer for contraceptive and abortion services in violation of Catholic teaching.
— “Christian students on campus. In its over-100-year history, the University of California Hastings College of Law has denied student organization status to only one group, the Christian Legal Society, because it required its leaders to be Christian and to abstain from sexual activity outside of Marriage.”
The USCCB website gives a series of reflections which they suggest could be used by us during the Fortnight. They divided up the Vatican II document, Dignitatis Humanae (the Declaration on Religious Liberty), into 14 parts, plus commentary. This can be found at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/religious-liberty/fortnight-for-freedom/fortnight-for-freedom-reflections.cfm. According to the USCCB, “the theme of this year’s fortnight will focus on the freedom to serve the poor and vulnerable in accord with human dignity and the Church’s teaching.” The Catholic Church (and other religions) risk being forced out of being able to provide these services due to intrusive governmental policies.
Last December 7 Pope Francis spoke to members of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute. Among other things, he said, “The Church’s social doctrine, with its integral vision of man as a personal and social being, is your ‘compass.’ There you will find an especially significant fruit of the long journey of the people of God in modern and contemporary history: the defense of religious liberty, of life at every stage, of the right to work and to decent work, of family, of education.”
A few weeks earlier he had written in Evangelii Gaudium #255 that religious freedom is “a fundamental human right. This includes ‘the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one’s beliefs in public’ (quoting Pope Benedict). A healthy pluralism, one which genuinely respects differences and values them as such, does not entail privatizing religions in an attempt to reduce them to the quiet obscurity of the individual’s conscience or to relegate them to the enclosed precincts of churches, synagogues or mosques. This would represent, in effect, a new form of discrimination and authoritarianism. The respect due to the agnostic or non-believing minority should not be arbitrarily imposed in a way that silences the convictions of the believing majority or ignores the wealth of religious traditions. In the long run, this would feed resentment rather than tolerance and peace.”
The present culture in the United States is tending toward what Pope Francis mentioned above — trying to limit our religious freedom to just be a freedom to worship, a freedom which would not be exercised outside of a “temple” building.
On the feast (Dec. 26, 2013) of St. Stephen, the first martyr, the Holy Father said, “today we pray especially for the Christians who are discriminated against on account of the witness they bear to Christ and to the Gospel. Let us remain close to these brothers and sisters who, like St. Stephen, are unjustly accused and made the objects of various kinds of violence. Unfortunately, I am sure they are more numerous today than in the early days of the Church. There are so many! This occurs especially where religious freedom is still not guaranteed or fully realized. However, it also happens in countries and areas where on paper freedom and human rights are protected, but where in fact believers, and especially Christians, face restrictions and discrimination. I would like to ask you to take a moment in silence to pray for these brothers and sisters and let us entrust them to Our Lady. This comes as no surprise to a Christian, for Jesus foretold it as a propitious occasion to bear witness. Still, on a civil level, injustice must be denounced and eliminated.”
The pope distinguished between suffering violence for the faith and suffering discrimination for it, but he said that both injustices need to be shown for what they are and eradicated. The Fortnight for Freedom offers us a spiritual exercise to train our souls for this battle, one which we will not win with arms, but with the Holy Spirit as our guide, leading us in our demonstrations, our voting, and our bearing witness in the public square (including at work or school, when we need to do so). May the saints whom we celebrate during this two weeks, SS. John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, who gave their lives for the faith, help us to be strong in the Lord.