"Fortnight for Freedom" Highlights Religious Liberty
June 25, 2012
Archbishop Chaput is one of the leading voices in the religious freedom campaign (Photo credit: Denver Post)
Religious liberty may not be the mainstream media’s favorite focus, but it has catapulted to the top concern of the nation’s largest religious body, the Roman Catholic Church, with many other religious bodies expressing support. Concern about the decline of religious liberty has been growing for nearly a generation, since the Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that liberty of conscience did not need a compelling state interest to override it. But with Department of Health and Human Service’s adamant imposition of the contraceptive/abortifacient mandate on Catholic educational and social institutions in January, despite much protestation before and after it was imposed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is leading as high a profile and sustained campaign as it can to educate both Catholics and the general American public about the wide ranging threat to religious freedom that has developed, and to press for redress of the issue.
Earlier in the spring, religious freedom rallies on March 23 and June 8, sponsored by the Coalition to Stop the HHS Mandate, drew thousands at many cities across the country. The current religious freedom event sponsored by the USCCB spans a fourteen day period from June 21 through July 4, beginning on the vigil of the feasts of the English Catholic martyrs, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. Both saints perished for their refusal to accept the ecclesiastical changes King Henry VIII demanded of all the English people. Other significant liturgical days commemorating martyrs in the fortnight are the Feast of St. John the Baptist (who died for publically challenging Herod the Tetrarch, celebrated on Sunday, June 23) and Sts. Peter and Paul (both executed, according to tradition, during the reign of Nero, and celebrated on Friday, June 29). The Fortnight for Freedom itself consists of special masses, rallies, speeches, and prayers designed to appeal to God, provide catechesis (religious education) to faithful Catholics, and arguments for the general public in support of the liberty of conscience now threatened by existing or potential government law and policy.
In a speech on the eve of the Fortnight, Archbishop Charles Chaput noted that religious freedom is a cornerstone of the American nation in its founding, a fact that would have seemed obvious to earlier generations, but is now forgotten because a large part of the public is skeptical of traditional Christian beliefs, seeing them instead as private prejudices that endanger the public good. This makes religious freedom at most the right to conduct religious ceremonies (freedom of worship), not liberty of conscience allowing believers freedom to live out their faith in society, and certainly not to maintain educational and charitable institutions in accordance with religious rather than secular standards. Archbishop Chaput emphasized that the ongoing threat is severe and real, and the Constitution, which has historically protected religious liberty, will not do so unless believers are convinced of their faith and willing to fight for religious freedom.
Other important statements issued by the USCCB in connection with the Fortnight include a statement of its Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, which recounted the historic support of the Catholic Church for religious liberty in the United States, noting particularly that of James Cardinal Gibbons in the nineteenth century, who struggled in leading the Church in a nation where many were distrustful of it, and who strongly endorsed religious liberty as conducive to the Church’s flourishing. Yet the committee’s “Statement on Religious Liberty” noted that today the HHS mandate requires religious institutions to act contrary to their stated beliefs, a proposed law in Connecticut would have required a congregational, rather than episcopal structure for Catholic parishes despite church doctrine, Catholic foster care and adoption agencies cannot function because they will not provide children to same sex or unmarried opposite sex couples, and that religious liberty is at times interpreted as requiring church agencies to violate Catholic doctrine.
Also issued in connection with the Fortnight are comments from a speech by Pope Benedict XVI pointing to the threats to freedom of religion and conscience developing in the United States. Quoted by the Catholic News Service, the pope said that there exist “concerted efforts” to eliminate “the right of conscientious objection … to cooperate in intrinsically evil practices.” This must be responded to by an “engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity.” It is the objective of the Fortnight for Freedom to advance the development of just that.
In addition to attending events, the Church has provided daily reflections and prayers for those participating in the Fortnight. These meditations are based on the Vatican II document dealing with religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, which established the Catholic approach to dealing with religious liberty in the period since the council. Individual dioceses are also sponsoring their own events and prayers in connection with the Fortnight.