Once again, the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops invites every diocese and every Catholic faith community, united together, to celebrate the Fortnight for Freedom, June 21 to July 4. This year’s theme will focus on the “Freedom to Bear Witness” to the truth of the Gospel.
Why is protecting religious freedom essential today more than ever before? The very moral fiber of our country and our world depends upon people of faith being able to practice their deeply held religious beliefs in a way that promotes peace, harmony and love. As religious freedom is diminished, so goes the moral and virtuous life. People lose their way and the dignity of the human person is diminished.
In an address to Albanian religious leaders, Pope Francis said, “When, in the name of an ideology, there is an attempt to remove God from society, it ends up adoring idols, and very soon men and women lose their way, their dignity is trampled and their rights violated.” (Sept. 23, 2014)
As religious freedom continues to be taken away from us by our government leaders, our human dignity is being trampled. Every person must be free to profess and live his or her faith, whatever it may be, because that man or woman is a child of God. Each of us is created in God’s image and likeness, and to take away our religious freedom is to deprive us from being who we are and from living our true identity. At the Second Vatican Council, the Council declared: “The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right” (Dignitatus Humanae, #2).
Therefore our allegiance is to God and, because of our Catholic faith, we are obliged to bear witness to the truth about marriage as the union of one man and one woman; the truth about the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death; the truth about the need to feed the hungry, comfort the sick, and welcome the migrant; and the truth about the need to protect and preserve our first freedom — religious liberty. Isn’t this precisely what the Gospel of Jesus demands of us?
It is clear today that when we publicly exercise our “Freedom to Bear Witness,” we will not only be ridiculed, but redefined. When we as Catholics speak out for what we are for, many others attempt to define for us what we are against. For example, when we promote God’s plan for marriage, it is viewed as discrimination against homosexuals. When we speak out for the rights of unborn children, it is viewed by many as discrimination against women.
In bearing witness, we must never let others define who we are and what we believe. We must continue to fight this cultural battle and speak strongly against the voices which are attempting to redefine our culture altogether and what we stand for.
When we think about the life of Jesus, he too, had his religious liberty taken from him. It cost him his life. He too, was ridiculed for being faithful to his dignity and beliefs. Let us be mindful of his words in the Gospel where he says, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn 15:20) and “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first” (Jn 15:18).
Another reason this fight is important is because it is a fight for humanity. We must defend religious freedom because the church loves God and humanity. When we practice our faith, we share our love for God and at the same time, take care of the most vulnerable of society. It is not about the church getting preferential treatment, but we do not truly have religious freedom without the freedom to live the Gospel, serving especially the poorest and most vulnerable among us (Mt 25:31-4).
“Only faith,” St. John Paul II once wrote in a message to the Albanian people, “reminds us that, if we have one Creator, we are therefore all brothers and sisters. Religious freedom is a safeguard against all forms of totalitarianism and contributes decisively to human fraternity.”
But as western culture becomes increasingly self-focused, human fraternity becomes increasingly challenged because the mindset turns to personal gratification instead of what is best for the common good of all. The demands of the Gospel become greater and are more likely to be rejected as the culture becomes more secular. This has resulted in people of faith experiencing religious persecution for their beliefs across the country in particular, but also around the world.
The fight for religious freedom must continue by people who keep the spirit of the Gospel and seek to build a world of peace, justice and love based upon truth as revealed by God. We must not be afraid of being marginalized nor should we hesitate to say that we are pro-life, for traditional marriage, for the poor, for the migrant and for religious liberty. We only have to think about the Christians who have been kidnapped and killed in places like Syria, Iraq and Africa. Let us stand up for them by standing up for the teachings of Jesus Christ and his church.
During this Fortnight for Freedom, may we all take the time to pray, educate ourselves on these important issues surrounding our religious freedom, and take action in bearing witness to our call to follow Christ in all things, supporting our rights to religious freedom!