By Joe Tremblay
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.
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.
More on this in part two of USCCB Concerned: Religious liberty threatened.
Joe Tremblay writes for Sky View, a current event and topic-driven Catholic blog. He is currently a contributor to The Edmund Burke Institute, and a frequent guest on Relevant Radio’s, The Drew Mariani Show. Joe is also married with five children.