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The Fight for Religious Freedom Continues

From June 21 to July 4 of this year we participated in a Fortnight for Freedom led by our Bishops throughout the United States. On July 4, 2012 Masses were held around our nation to close out these fourteen days of prayer, study, and action on the topic of religious freedom. We are honored to present to you here a homily given that day by the Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer of the Diocese of Lexington at the July 4 Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Lexington, KY. Although the Fortnight for Freedom has ended, as Bishop Gainer says, the fight has not; there is much work still to be done. The following text is printed here with the permission of Bishop Gainer.

“The challenge facing you, dear friends, is to increase people’s awareness of the importance of religious freedom for society; to defend that freedom against those who would take religion out of the public domain and establish secularism as America’s official faith.”

Those challenging and so very prophetic words were spoken 17 years ago by Blessed John Paul II in Baltimore during his apostolic visit to our country.  The Holy Father foresaw the great challenges to religious liberty that were on the horizon for us and he gave us an agenda to educate and raise awareness of the importance of religious freedom for society and to act in the defense of that freedom against those who would deny or restrict it.

Our Mass today concludes The Fortnight for Freedom. These two weeks were especially dedicated as a hymn of prayer for our nation and a national campaign of teaching and witness for our first, most cherished freedom, religious liberty. It is our duty as citizens and an obligation of our faith to resist firmly and clearly the variety of unprecedented intrusions which so clearly encroach upon the freedom of religion and freedom of religious conscience that unfortunately have become almost commonplace in the laws and regulations of our nation.

It is fundamental to Catholic teaching that human rights inhere in every human being as a gift from God. They are not awarded to us. They are not given to us by the government or by our founding documents. They are natural to us. Made in God’s image and likeness, persons possess natural rights. Governments may identify certain individual rights, but governments can never be thought to be the origin of our inalienable and irrevocable rights.

Some critics of religious liberty believe that the founders of our nation could not have intended what we claim to be religious freedom. This is an untenable position and let me tell you why.  It is certainly true that some of the Founders were Deists – men like Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and Paine who doubted the inerrancy of Scripture and the divinity of Jesus. However it is clear from the personal writings of those who forged our new social order – whether or not they were personally religious  – that they understood clearly the need for religion in a free society. Because they understood human nature and believed in a God, the Founders were able to develop an understanding of liberty that is as timeless as it is fruitful.

Put simply, our Founders understood that for a democracy to succeed, citizens had to be virtuous people. The best way to foster virtue in people is the practice of religion. They understood that religious freedom was essential not only for the good of the individual but also for the common good of society.

This is our American heritage.  Religious liberty is the first freedom because if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are weakened and eventually lost. If our obligations and duties to God are impeded or, even worse, contradicted by the government, then we can no longer claim to be a land of the free and a beacon of hope for the world.

The history of many nations and even the history of some of our own American colonies, such as Maryland, teach us that freedom under the law and protection of God-given rights requires constant vigilance and protection or those freedoms disappear. The Fortnight for Freedom is only one response – organized nation-wide  – to highlight our duty to be vigilant, to protest violations and to defend all our freedoms, especially religious liberty.

Primary among the attacks on religious freedom is the mandate of the Department of Health and Human Services which requires employers, including Catholic institutions, to violate the moral law by providing contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health plans. You will hear and read that the HHS mandate does grant an exemption to churches but it defines religious institutions in such a narrow way that it excludes, for example, Catholic universities, hospitals, food pantries, publishing houses, and social services. Most troubling is the administration’s underlying rationale for its decisions. They take the position that if a religious entity is not insular but engaged with broader society, it loses its religious character. Indeed, according to the federal rule, if we serve people who are not Catholic in our agencies, or educate them in our universities, or employee them in our institutions – and we certainly do – then we cease to qualify for the religious exemption. If we provide for the needs of the sick and the poor, but don’t require that they be Catholic or don’t explicitly catechize them, we do not qualify.

While the HHS mandate has loomed large in the media spotlight, be very aware that it is only one of a number of equally offensive regulations.  Other examples which clearly demonstrate that our religious freedom is endangered include: attempts by the government to alter church structures and internal governance; regulations by state’s or by individual institutions of higher learning which limit the rights of Christian students on their campuses; government regulations that have caused major Catholic foster care and adoption services to close their doors; discrimination against small church congregations and discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services. This last government infringement requires us to provide or refer for contraceptives and abortion services victims of human trafficking.  For years the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services has been recognized for its excellent and efficient programs for victims of human trafficking.  Now because of altered federal regulations which contradict our moral convictions about the sacredness of unborn life, we are no longer eligible in administering contract services.

These have been the topics that have been analyzed and discussed during our seven parish-sponsored programs these past fourteen days.  Allow me, please, to thank all those who were involved in preparing, hosting and presenting these programs.  These evenings have been opportunities to teach and learn the truth about these critical issues we are facing today.  Thanks also to all who participated in our parish programs.  In today’s second reading Saint Paul instructed us to think about whatever is honorable, whatever is true, whatever is just.  This is what we have been doing over this Fortnight and this is what we must continue to do in order to fulfill our duty toward God and country..

The federal government seems intent on redefining religious liberty as the freedom of worship. Throughout our American history those two phrases – freedom of religion and freedom of worship – have been synonymous. They have meant the very same thing. However, many of these threats represent a redefining of freedom of religion to mean that we are free only to say and do what our religion dictates within the walls of our churches. We are free to worship but not free to carry the fruits of that worship into the public square. Religious liberty is not only about our freedom to go to Mass on Sunday or pray with our family at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do without having to compromise that very same faith? Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of essential contributions made by many religious groups in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights and social services that religious Americans make every day both here at home and overseas.

In his first encyclical, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that the works of charity are as essential for the church’s mission as is preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. The Catholic Church can no more abandon the sick in our hospitals or the immigrant at the border than she can set aside the Word of God or the Holy Eucharist. We cannot separate the fruits of faith from the faith itself. The works of faith are not optional.  They are not extras. They are essential. We care for the poor, the sick, the immigrant, the unemployed, the orphan, the expectant mother in distress, not only because it’s a good thing to do but because of our faith. It is the necessary fruit of faith and without it faith is dead.

For all these reasons we cannot, we must not be passive or indifferent as we see freedom of religion spun to mean freedom from religion.  This is not a Catholic issue. This is an American issue. This is not directly about contraception or abortion. This is not about imposing Catholic morality on the general public.   But it IS about the exercise of religious freedom and purposeful attacks against it.

The gospel in today’s Mass is taken from St. Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. Our Lord sets the bar high when he tells us: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.” The standards of the Sermon on the Mount stretch us. They take us beyond our normal desire to just be complacent and comfortable Christians. In this passage, our Lord uses dramatic language to get our attention. We need to have that kind of strong language to shake us up, to make us think, to make us recognize that we as Christians cannot simply drift along following the line of least resistance. We need to live our faith to the full.

Today with genuine gratitude, we celebrate, the birthday of our nation. We thank God for the rich legacy that has been handed on to us by generations of brave, self-sacrificing Americans. For our country, our freedoms, our mission in the world we give perfect thanks to the Father to the celebration of this Eucharist. At the same time we beg the Lord to give us wisdom and courage, insight and foresight that we might be responsible citizens and faithful Catholics in this confused time. Let us be radically open to the day-to-day graces God bestows on us so that with a renewed effort we might be willing to do everything we can to promote and protect religious freedom here in the United States and throughout the world. May God grant us a determination to do what we can by writing letters, making phone calls and sending e-mails to our government representatives informing them about our concerns about the shift in government policies regarding religious freedom and the definition of religious institutions. May God grant us a fuller conversion to be women and men of authentic Catholic faith who each in our own way proclaim the Gospel. May God grant us an increase in the virtue of true patriotism so that we might be faithful citizens committed to the common good of our land.  But most of all, may God grant us a deeper reverence for the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist and a sincere passion to be bearers of Christ’s truth and love.


The Most Reverend Ronald W. Gainer was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Allentown (PA) in 1973. He was ordained the Bishop of the Diocese of Lexington in February 2003. Bishop Gainer is the second bishop of the diocese. The Diocese of Lexington includes 63 parishes and missions across over 16,000 square miles of central and eastern Kentucky.

 

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Ink Slingers Molly G

Let Freedom Ring

As Americans, the 4th of July is one of our biggest holiday celebrations.  It marks the very important anniversary of our Nation’s independence.   Growing up as a military child, holidays celebrating our country meant something very special to me.   Even as a child, I remember the wonderful sense of Patriotism building up inside of me.  I didn’t know the ins and outs of our country’s politics, or the serious problems we faced everyday as a nation, but I knew I felt proud.  I knew I loved our country.  And I knew there was something special about being American that was innately rooted in my being. A lot of this Patriotic sentiment came from my father.  He, being a Navy veteran, and also the grandson of Immigrants gave him a unique perspective. My father was not Baptized, nor a Catholic for a large part of my childhood, but ironically, he made it clear from early on to always instill in me the greatness of our nation as rooted in God, not man. (a perspective which I feel may have helped in his conversion later in life).

 

I remember a personal experience while attending Mass with my mother when we lived overseas.   I arrived early with my mom, and we walked in as others were walking out.  Being the only base chapel, we had to share the building with other religious denominations.  As I sat in the pew, I looked around.  I noticed the priests quietly come out to the altar. I was confused, as it wasn’t time for Mass to start yet.  What I witnessed next made an everlasting impression on me.  The priests carefully placed the Tabernacle with the Host at the front on a table.  The large plain wooden cross was loosened and flipped over to reveal an ornate crucifix now at the center of the wall behind the altar.  The vestments were laid and the candles lit.  It was quite a transformation to see and is something that has stuck with me to this day.  The physical way the chapel was changed that day represented a much larger picture to me about the tradition of our faith and what it can offer to our American heritage.

Several years later, when traveling in Northern France with my high school band program, we came to the small town where we were going to stay.  Our bus pulled up, and the townspeople had gathered along the street.  The Mayor of the town came to greet us, and started to speak.  I assumed we would hear a welcome speech and then be released to our homestays.  Instead, what I heard was an elaborate history of the town, and how American troops had liberated and protected the town in World War II from complete destruction.  The Mayor concluded by saying that he did not want the townspeople to ever forget what had been done for them, and he wanted us to know, as young Americans, that he would keep this promise.  He then came around and shook each of our hands and said, “Thank you.”  I was amazed at the story, and even more so that someone, in a small town in France, would take the time to acknowledge America for her charity and greatness over 50 years later.

It was in that moment that I realized being American was much more than just a nationality.  All of my dad’s lessons came back to me in a flood of thoughts.  There was something special about our country, the people in it, and what our destiny was in the world.  America’s founding, based on freedom and liberty, was definitely rooted in something stronger.  My dad had said to me in a recent email, “Our founding fathers believed – rightly, I think – that God gives us the blueprint for living life properly. Our task is to discern his plan and live by it. In return, one prays, He will give us His grace – Grace that we are not entitled to and that we cannot earn, but that grace lies at the very root of our freedom.” He also told me, “When Jefferson wrote : ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” it wasn’t designed to be a bumper sticker, it was a statement of truth – self-evident truth derived from faith.”

I began to think about his statements, and all our founding fathers had to go through to establish a document as bold as The Declaration of Independence.  Then it hit me.  Faith.  Faith is why the Declaration signers had the courage to stand up, and why we are truly a free people.  The founders were referencing God.  Just as my dad had always taught me.

When telling my dad about my upcoming 4th of July blog post, he told me about his own Russian born grandfather, whom he called ‘Pop.’  Pop’s chicken farm had failed – being taken over by larger chicken businesses. He was then made to supplement his social security by taking a part time position as a maintenence man at one of those larger chicken processing plants.  My then 14 year old father, seeing what hard times his Pop had come upon, asked him if he ever regretted immigrating to America. In his own broken language made up of English, Yiddish, Spanish, and Polish, Pop told my father emphatically and almost angrily:

“I am an American. I know why I came here. I worked hard, I sent two sons to college (Pop had only completed 3rd grade), I own property, I worship as I please, and I do what I want.”

My dad went on to tell me, “It wasn’t until after I had traveled the world and gone to war that I began to understand.  After seeing how the rest of the world lives – even the “developed” world, I started to grasp what Pop meant. He was thinking about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and he knew from whence those rights came as did our country’s founders: God, not man.”

 

So this Wednesday, when we are celebrating the wonderful gift of independence of our great nation, we must also remember the gift of our faith. Freedom and liberty were surely found in America that day in 1776.  But it was through God given talents of great men, we were given a vision no other country had previously embarked upon.  True freedom came through faith in God, which shaped the immigrant’s faith in the American promise.  For it is this faith that allows us to live out that vision set forth by our founding fathers; and will allow us, as citizens, to continue to strive for a better America.  In the words of the time honored hymn “Faith of our Fathers:”

Faith of our fathers, we will strive
To win all nations unto thee;
And through the truth that comes from God
Mankind shall then indeed be free.
Faith of our fathers! holy faith!
We will be true to thee till death

Mother Mary, pray for us!

God Bless America!