In April of this year the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) published a statement entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty”. If you haven’t already done so, I urge readers of this column to obtain a copy of this compelling and critically urgent (pastoral and civic) statement available on the USCCB website.
In our country – settled as it was by pilgrims and sojourners in search of religious freedom – we are confronted today with a reductive secularism which, as the bishops’ statement puts it, “would delegitimize the Church’s participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society”.
The statement provides concrete examples of how our religious liberty is under attack. The Department of Health and Human Services mandate for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs is the salient example of government forcing violation of religious belief and practice. Among the other examples there are some that would surely arouse the ire of any serious Catholic, especially if in their veins still flow the blood of the militant immigrant Church.
Did you know, for instance, that in Alabama it is illegal for a Catholic priest to baptize, hear the confession of, celebrate the anointing of the sick with, or preach the word of God to an undocumented immigrant? Can you imagine a Catholic priest being told he could not administer the Last Rights to a dying man because of the latter’s civil status? Can you imagine any seriously committed Christian being denied the opportunity to offer succor to anyone in distress? There are other examples in “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty”, but this one alone should shake us Catholic Americans, from the ecclesial stupor into which we, the spiritual descendents of John Carroll, Elizabeth Seaton, James Gibbons, John Courtney Murray and Dorothy Day seem to have fallen. Don’t we see what’s happening?
As the bishops point out, freedom of religion is our first freedom as Americans. It is a freedom and right for which countless men and women have paid the ultimate sacrifice. The opportunity to practice one’s religion free of government interference attracted the Europeans who came to these shores in the early and mid 17th century, the pilgrims in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania and the Catholics in Maryland (I am not unmindful of the Spaniards!). Americans who now deny or discount this fact are either ignorant of history, of dismissive of the essential reality, or of religion in the lives of their fellow citizens.
Catholicism came to Maryland in the early 1600’s. In fact, an antecedent of this writer was one of the Catholic passengers on the Ark which brought persecuted Catholics, including the Jesuit Andrew White, to that tolerant colony in 1634, attracted as they were by the Calverts’ pledge of religious tolerance. Although Maryland’s Toleration Act of 1649 protected an individual’s right to freedom of conscience, within a few decades the Church of England had become the established religion due to developments in the Mother-land. In Maryland, the Act to Prevent the Spread of Popery was passed in 1704 and Catholics were fully disenfranchised. The public expression of Catholicism was outlawed. Chapels were closed. Mass could be celebrated only in the privacy of one’s home and even then at some risk.
The suppression of Catholicism wasn’t limited to Maryland. In 1733, the entire English speaking world – that is North America, Great Britain and Australia – the only place Mass was permitted to be celebrated publicly was in Old St. Joseph’s Church in Willings Way, a parish in Philadelphia founded by the Jesuits from Maryland. This extraordinary exception to the British Crown’s rule was because of the Quakers in that “City of Friends.” Historians contend that this Quaker insistence of religious tolerance gave rise eventually to the adoption of the First Amendment in the American Constitution. We could use some Quaker backbone today.
In their statement, the bishops identify the two weeks leading up to July 4th and beginning with the Feast of St. Thomas More (a political martyr if there ever was one) as a ‘fortnight of freedom’. They invite us to join in the following prayer:
Almighty God, Father of all nations,
For freedom you have set us free in Christ Jesus
We praise and bless you for the gift of religious liberty, the foundation of human rights, justice, and the common good.
Grant to our leaders the wisdom to protect and promote our liberties;
By your grace may we have the courage to defend them, for ourselves and for all those who live in this blessed land.
We ask this through the intercession of Mary Immaculate, our patroness, and in the name of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, with whom you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Does the Kingdom advance? Or, are we being forced back into the catacombs?