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In a homily which we read on his feast day, Gregory the Great comments on the Word of the Lord addressed to Ezekiel:
"Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel" (Ez. 33:7).
The saintly pontiff adds:
"Note that a man whom the Lord sends forth as a preacher is called a watchman. A watchman always stands on a height so that he can see from afar what is coming.Anyone appointed to be a watchman for the people must stand on a height, for all his life, to help them by his foresight" (Pope St. Gregory the Great, Homily on Ezekiel, Bk. 1, 11).
Gregory compared his ministry to that of a watchman. So too, we bishops are called to be vigilant heralds of the Word and overseers of the household of God.
For some time now, we have viewed with growing alarm the ongoing erosion of religious liberty in our country. During our last plenary meeting, we decided to make the defense of religious liberty a Conference priority and embraced our responsibility to address head-on threats to this precious freedom.
In consultation with the Administrative Committee, Archbishop Dolan established an Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty now comprised of ten bishops, ably assisted by excellent consultants, and skillfully supported by our new Associate General Secretary, Anthony Picarello, with two additional staff – a lawyer and a lobbyist. In addition, we will rely on the collaboration of an extraordinary number of bishops and the expertise of our Conference staff.
So now, brothers, let us ask ourselves: How do we, as pastors and citizens, bring into focus our teaching on religious liberty? What should we be looking for and what do we see?And how should we respond to what we see.
The Second Vatican Council calls us "to read the signs of the times" and to do so, as it were, through binoculars equipped with the two lenses.
First is the lens of the Church's teaching on human dignity and religious liberty, a dignity and freedom inscribed on the human heart and revealed fully in Christ.
Second is the lens of that heritage bequeathed by the Founding Fathers: a bold Declaration of Independence that recognizes inherent human rights, "endowed by their Creator"; and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights that accords a certain primacy to our freedom to respond to that Creator, in every aspect of our lives, without undue government interference, along with the indispensable adjuncts of freedom of speech and assembly.
Our experience tells us that it takes a lot of work to keep our binoculars in focus, that is to say, to maintain a critical and accurate understanding of how the vision of our Founding Fathers and the vision of the Church's teaching on religious liberty fit together. As historians in this room know so well, the relationship of the Church and the American experiment came into focus only gradually and will always need careful re-focusing.Nonetheless, both lenses, when allowed to function as intended, offer a remarkably clear vision of human dignity and freedom.
This remarkably clear vision includes the following:
In short, religious liberty pertains to the whole person – it is not simply the freedom to believe and to worship but to shape our very lives around those beliefs and that worship, both as individuals and as a community, and to share our lives, thus transformed, with the world around us.
And with clarity of vision we ask whether a genuine understanding of religious liberty still has a chance of shaping our society. For as one distinguished jurist put it, if liberty dies in the hearts of men and women, "no constitution, no law, no court can save it" (Learned Hand). As watchmen we need to see whether or not this fundamental liberty continues to live in the hearts of our fellow Catholics and citizens.
And what is it that we actually see through these dual lenses that give us clear access to reality? We see a Church who, for all her challenges, serves the common good with extraordinary effectiveness and generosity. Think of the tremendous international relief work of our church and its agencies in reaching untold numbers of people in desperate circumstances.
In the dioceses that we serve, the Church is the largest non-governmental source of educational, social, charitable, and health care services, offered as an integral part of our mission, offered as an expression of our faith in the God who is love. In a time of economic hardship, the services which the Catholic Church and other denominations offer are not only beneficial but indeed crucial, but it is becoming more and more difficult for us to deliver services in a manner that truly respects the very faith that impels us to provide them.
Indeed, Archbishop Dolan gave voice to what we collectively see: "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" (National Catholic Register, Oct. 23, 2011).
Among the challenges we see is a pattern in culture and law to treat religion merely as a private matter between an individual and his or her God.Instead of promoting toleration of differing religious views, certain laws, court decisions, and administrative regulations treat religion not as a contributor to our nation's common morality but rather as a divisive and disruptive force better kept out of public life. Some invoke the so-called doctrine of separation of church and state to exclude the Church from public policy, thus ignoring the historic role of churches in ending slavery, in securing civil rights, in promoting just labor practices, including the introduction of child labor laws.
So while religion is indeed a personal matter, it is not a private matter, for there is no religious liberty if we are not free to express our faith in the public square and if we are not free to act on that faith through works of education, health care, and charity . . . just as there is no freedom of speech if one is free to say what he or she believes only privately but not publicly through the media, the arts, libraries, and schools.
We also see that the reach of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is being expanded so as continually to narrow the protections offered by the Free Exercise Clause, thus turning the First Amendment on its head. The Establishment Clause was meant to protect the Free Exercise Clause not the other way around. The result has been that both individual citizens with strong religious convictions and also religious institutions are less broadly accommodated and even marginalized on the grounds that any minimal accommodation somehow constitutes the "establishment" of particular religions in our land.
For example, the Conference has been defending against an ACLU lawsuit claiming that HHS's recently abandoned policy that allowed us to serve trafficking victims without also providing them abortions and contraception— a policy that respected our freedom of religious exercise – actually violates the Establishment Clause.
But let us make no mistake. Aggressive secularism is also a system of belief. In failing to accommodate people of faith and religious institutions, both law and culture are indeed establishing un-religion as the religion of the land and granting it the rights and protections that our Founding Fathers envisioned for citizens who are believers and for their churches and church institutions.In addition, over time, the barriers preventing government from interfering in the internal life of religious groups have been lowered.
This aids and abets the erosion of religious liberty, which is expressly recognized and protected by the First Amendment, by the imposition of court-mandated "rights" which have no textual basis in the Constitution such as those that pertain to abortion and same-sex marriage. Refusal to endorse the taking of innocent human life or to redefine marriage is now portrayed as discriminatory. As a result, 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.This and more have led to dramatic and immediate threats to religious liberty across our land, in various states, whether it is an Alabama law and court ruling that criminalize the "good Samaritan" services which religious entities provide to the undocumented; or a county clerk in New York State who faces legal action because she refuses to take part in same-sex marriages; or 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; or 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.
We see the problem at the federal level. Some federal agencies, absent legislative and judicial oversight, threaten religious freedom.
As we know, 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. The religious exemption was far too narrow, requiring Catholic employers to hire mainly Catholics, serve mainly Catholics, and exist mainly to inculcate religious values – all these conditions must be met in order to qualify for the exemption.
As Sr. Carol Keehan noted, the exemption is so narrow that it scarcely covers the parish housekeeper!And there is no conscience protection for insurers or individuals with religious or moral objections to the mandate. While there is a real possibility of a broader exemption, it remains to be seen whether it will indeed protect all religious organizations and the conscience rights of individuals and insurers.
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, a condition we hope may soon be dropped.
The Department of Justice has created additional problems. It 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.
We see these and other threats no longer from afar but immediately on the horizon so the Ad Hoc Committee has begun its work in helping us in our dioceses to defend and promote religious liberty with and among our dioceses.
As bishops our first duty and instinct is to teach, and so, among other things, the Committee will provide multi-media resources to help us all in teaching about religious liberty.
As pastors, we recognize that we have a critical role to play in leading our people in prayer and in instructing and inspiring them, so that they will cherish their God-given freedoms and work to shape a society marked by respect for the transcendent dignity and freedom of each human being,
As watchmen, we will continue to flag threats to religious liberty and to speak out against them, to engage public officials, whether elected or appointed, not in a partisan fashion, but in a manner entirely consistent with the deepest values of our democracy,
But this we cannot do alone. We need to join with our ecumenical and inter-faith partners. We need to involve our closest co-workers, our priests, who are on the front lines of parish life, and who enjoy the respect and esteem of their parishioners. Their voice will be vital in the struggle that lay before us.
But we bishops and priests cannot do it alone. We must stand united in calling forth the lay men and women of the Church to put their gifts and expertise on the line in defense of religious liberty – whether experts or hard-working lay Catholics who simply want to raise their families and hand on their Catholic faith in a land that is free, in a land that is just.
It is not a question of creating new structures or new bureaucracies, but of utilizing what is already in place – parishes, schools, communications networks – so as to refocus and re-energize the people we serve, so as to bring this message and mission to every corner of our land.
Together, we will do our best to awaken in ourselves, in our fellow Catholics, and in the culture at large a new appreciation for religious liberty and a renewed determination to defend it.
When Archbishop Dolan asked to me give this talk, he called it a stem-winder, and standing before you today I am very grateful for the invention of self-winding watches! Thank you for seeing the urgency of defending religious liberty for our Church and for all believers. I hope that the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty will be of greatest service to all of us in our dioceses, in our role as teachers, as pastors, as lovers of truth and freedom – as watchmen!
I have already testified before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and yesterday the new Ad Hoc Committee met for the first time. On behalf of this Committee, I warmly invite your pastoral wisdom and seek your input as we move forward. This Committee will strive to do its work in your behalf effectively and efficiently and will consult you and report to you on a frequent and regular basis.Thanks for listening, may God bless our Church and our Nation!
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