The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Freedom of Religion the U.S.

I usually don't get political here -- well, not  too often and not too political -- but I'm making an exception today. Actually, what I'm going to address is political only to those who want the Church to remain on the sidelines, far outside the public square, and who believe religion should be practiced only behind closed doors. They don't like it when the Church speaks out on moral issues affecting the country and the world, believing that the Church crosses some ill-defined line between the religious and the political. But when politicians wander or stumble into the moral sphere, the Church has both a right and an obligation to speak. By denying the Church's right to do so, these folks ignore a few thousand years of human history during which political action has always been influenced by the religious values of a society, the values that define its culture. Indeed, once the "cult" is removed from a culture, the society inevitably begins its decline. Of course, it's no surprise that these same people will be profuse in their support of the Church's right to speak and act so long as the Church's position on a particular issue supports the preferred political agenda.

A few years ago, when Diane and I joined tens of thousands of others to take part in the annual March for Life in Washington, I heard a bystander shout out to us, "Just shut up and don't force your bleeping religion on us." I surprised myself by ignoring him, and just marched on holding my "Choose Life" sign a bit higher. But I found it interesting that an American would make such a comment. By demanding that a fellow citizen -- and from a political perspective the Church is certainly an assembly of citizens -- keep quiet about things religious, this man and others like him openly reject the clear language of the U. S. Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion to all Americans. Too many, including some of our federal justices, ignore that little "free exercise" phrase in the first sentence of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech". That bystander in Washington was, therefore, doubly guilty. He not only wanted to deny me the right to exercise my religion freely, but he also wanted to limit my speech to subjects of which he approved.

How sad that the clear language of the Constitution has been so strangely interpreted. After two-hundred plus years, one thing is clear: our Constitution is too important a document to place in the hands of constitutional lawyers. After all, it was written in the name of and ratified by "We the People". I can't help but recall Jesus' words,
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will." [Mt 11:25-26]
I have no problem being numbered among the "childlike". This is why theologians with all their degrees and all their knowledge do not represent the Church's teaching authority, its Magisterium. That authority remains with the apostles and their successors, the pope and the bishops...something that seems to drive more than a few theologians to distraction. But I'm drifting off the subject...

Our bishops are beginning to take notice of the fact that some in positions of political power in this country take a rather narrow view of religious liberty. The Church -- and here I mean the Catholic Church -- because of its positions in support of life and against the culture of death, has been singled out by government agencies who are trying to prohibit it from taking part in any government sponsored programs from adoption services to refugee assistance. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is also mandating that all health insurance programs offer coverage of "reproductive" services to include contraception (including abortifacients) and sterilization. Such services are completely contrary to the Church's teaching for the past 2,000 years. The intent, of course, is to present the Church with a lose-lose situation. It can either cave in to these threats by agreeing to ignore the truth of its teachings for the sake of participation in government programs, or it can further isolate itself from an increasingly government-heavy society and lose the funding on which it has come to rely.

Of course, this tactic completely ignores the Constitutional guarantees that prohibit our government from denying us the right to exercise our religion freely. If a Catholic college, for example, is forced to offer its employees health insurance that contains coverage directly contrary to Church teaching, such a requirement is in obvious violation of the First Amendment. Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina is one such Catholic school that has been singled out by the federal government. The college is engaged in a legal challenge to the HHS mandate. To read more about its struggle, click here.

As I mentioned above, the U.S. bishops are responding to this threat to our religious liberty. Here, for example, is a brief video by  the Archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in which he encourages the faithful to pray, to become informed, and to act in defense of religious liberty in the United States [Hint: this last means to vote only for those who will defend religious freedom.]

For more information see this article on the bishops' latest efforts in defense of religious liberty: US Bishops' Committee on Religious Liberty. The U.S. bishops are also in the midst of a three-day assembly in Baltimore at which they are discussing such issues as religious liberty, the sanctity of marriage, and the Church's call to be a force for good by bringing God's love to a sinful world. Here's a link: Bishops' Assembly in Baltimore.

I am truly pleased that such an effort is underway. My only suggestion is that the Church back away from government-funded programs whenever possible. Perhaps in the future, instead of trying to ensure a place at the federal funding table, the bishops should devote more time convincing the faithful to provide the funds necessary to carry out the Gospel mandate to care for those in need. I'm going to be cynical here and suggest that those in the government who create the programs to feed the hungry or care for the poor do not do so in response to the Gospel mandate. They do it to create dependency, to ensure votes, and to dampen any potential unrest. (I told you I was cynical.)

Sadly, some of our Christian charities are no better. A few years ago, during a local weather emergency, the head of one religious-based charitable organization called me to ask if our soup kitchen could use some ready-to-serve meals. When I told him we had plenty of food on hand to deal with the current emergency, and really had no place to store any more, he said, "Oh, that's too bad. If I can get rid of this stuff and document that it went for emergency use, I can get a bunch more federal funding." From this and subsequent comments it was obvious he cared less about helping those in need than in maintaining his government funding. I eventually suggested he call the Red Cross.

Our Wildwood Soup Kitchen is actually a very good example. Diane and I spend some time working there every week and truly enjoy it, as do over 200 other volunteers from almost 40 local churches. We do this because as Christians we take seriously the Gospel mandate to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger [see Mt 25]. We do it because Jesus in His overwhelming love for us commanded us to love God and neighbor. And after experiencing His love, we can do nothing else. We don't do it to achieve any political ends or to guarantee sources of funding. Our soup kitchen has maintained its independence from government by relying solely on donations from individuals, churches, businesses, and civic organizations. Such sources of funding are generally more reliable, and certainly less intrusive, than government.

Yes, I realize it's just a little soup kitchen that serves about 250 free meals each day, six days a week, but I suspect those first deacons in Jerusalem [see Acts 6] served only a few widows and orphans at the start; and look how we've progressed since then.

Pray for our country, and pray for our bishops, that they have the courage and wisdom to do what is right and just.

Pax et bonum...

1 comment:

  1. Hello Father,

    I want to point out to you writings of the saints and lives of the saints

    I hope they are helpful in your ministry

    God Bless