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The Defense of Religious Liberty and Service to the Poor

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, New Albany, Indiana

First, let me say what a pleasure it is to return to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, the parish of my childhood. It was here that I received my First Holy Communion, here that I was confirmed, and here that I first heard the call to become a priest. It was also here, in the halls of the parish school, where I sometimes got into trouble, especially with my teachers, Sr. Clementine, Mrs. Richardson, and Sr. Mary William, but that is another story for another day!

A special word of thanks to the Franciscan Sisters of Oldenburg, Indiana, for providing an excellent Catholic education to the countless students whom they taught; to Fr. Charles Wagner, who was pastor here during my childhood. It was only later that I realized how hard he worked and how much he did for this parish; and to the Knights of Columbus and to Bob and Phyllis Burkholder, who worked so hard to plan this evening.

I also want to thank everyone for being here on “Black Friday”. For many this is the most important shopping day of the year, though, sadly, shopping has begun to intrude even into Thanksgiving Day itself, one of the few times when many families gather around a common table. Anyway, I’ll try to keep my remarks sufficiently brief so that when I’m finished you can still make it to a few stores!

Let me now introduce my topic: “The Defense of Religious Liberty and Service to the Poor”. One reason I chose this topic is Pope Francis’ unmistakable emphasis on the role of the Church in serving the poor. Repeatedly, he has told us to bring the Gospel from the Church to the margins. Repeatedly, he has told us he wants a poor Church that serves the poor. “Do not forget the poor,” he tells us, and more than that, he urges us to know and love the poor, to respect the poor, and to learn from the poor, especially lessons of faith and trust in God. So too Pope Francis reminds us that serving the poor goes to the heart of evangelization, the Church’s mission of spreading the Gospel.

The Faces of the Poor
So let us begin tonight not with the rights of the Church but rather with the faces of the poor. It is not hard for me to see the faces of the poor. I live in a city where many people are poor, homeless, ensnared by drugs, a city where many young people literally have no roots, a city where over 210 people have been murdered so far in 2013. There is a bus stop across from the Cathedral Basilica in downtown Baltimore where four or five people sleep every night. Next door is “My Sister’s Place” – a shelter for homeless women – and nearby is “Our Daily Bread” where those in need can find a warm smile and hot meal three times a day, along with health and employment assistance.

I also meet the poor on the street and in the churches I visit. Walking home from the office, I’m often asked for some “spare change”. Visiting parishes, I often meet people who lack adequate health care, who are unemployed, who are slipping from the middle class into poverty. How often I’m asked to pray for those who find themselves in desperate straits unimaginable only a few years before. While visiting mountain Maryland parishes, I hear how few jobs there are, how little opportunity for the young, how bleak the future appears. Is there any way the Church could be the Church and not respond – not only with prayers and personal concern but also with practical assistance? One of the consolations in serving the Archdiocese of Baltimore is the great generosity of its people in helping those in need – both in terms of contributions and in terms of volunteer hours. Although the Archdiocese of Baltimore is not among the largest dioceses in the U.S., its Catholic Charities does indeed rank among the largest. Who would ever want to endanger such an operation in the face of such need?

Close Down or Serve the Poor?
Yet as the Church has struggled against the Department of Health and Human Services so-called “preventive services” mandate, this question has come to the fore. As you recall, the HHS mandate requires that the health insurance plans of Catholic ministries that serve the poor, the vulnerable, and the sick must cover abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, contraception, and even reproductive counseling for underage girls. Only houses of worship and similar institutions are exempt from this requirement. No one concerned about the Church’s mission – a mission to proclaim and act upon the Gospel “in its entirety”, as Pope Francis has said – thinks this mandate is a good thing.

The HHS mandate takes effect on January 1, 2014, making questions surrounding it all the more urgent. What’s more, some think our response to it hovers between two extremes – on the one hand, more or less willing compliance with the mandate; and on the other hand, closing down ministries such as Catholic Charities rather than complying with the mandate.

So are those really our only choices? The answer is no. We are taking steps to help us proclaim and act upon the Gospel “in its entirety” despite this difficult situation. At the conclusion of our recent general assembly in Baltimore, the bishops of the United States issued a statement in which we said, yet again, that the mandate burdens the free exercise of religious liberty and in which we also said that we are striving to develop creative steps to avoid the extremes of compliance and shutting down, creative steps we hope will be of assistance even to those institutions that bishops typically do not directly control but over which they are to exercise pastoral oversight. In other words, we are looking for every legal avenue to provide good health insurance to our employees that is also in accord with the Church’s teaching while robustly carrying forward our ministries of service. This includes the lawsuits that have been filed in various parts of the country but also includes the development of other steps as well. It is a case of trying to be ‘innocent as doves and clever as serpents,’ or so we hope!

In our message we also expressed regret over all the time and resources we’ve had to spend attempting to defend the Church against the HHS mandate. We would rather have spent that time and energy working with both political parties toward providing accessible health care to all, especially the poor, a goal that the bishops have advocated since 1919.

Yet the bishops did not say that the time and energy spent on defending against the HHS mandate was ill-spent. Religious liberty is worth defending, even if it is threatened by something as arcane as a federal rule. Religious liberty is something we value as believers who see it as essential to human dignity and as citizens of a nation committed to the constitutional protection of this and other fundamental liberties. Indeed, I am very grateful to stand united with brother bishops and priests, religious, seminarians, and so many members of the lay faithful in efforts to protect and defend religious freedom.

I would like to take this opportunity to amplify the link the bishops’ statement makes between the defense of religious freedom and service to the poor. How exactly are the two related?

Subjects Not Objects
First and foremost, we have to always remember that the poor and vulnerable whom we serve are not a commodity. They are persons made in the image and likeness of God and endowed by the Creator with inviolable dignity. Their needs are urgent and palpable. Yet, what every human being craves, even those who are hungry and thirsty, is what Pope Benedict XVI called “the look of love” – that glance which, even without words, affirms their dignity and human worth. The “look of love” is not merely sentimental like something out of a Frank Capra movie (much as I like his movies). No, it is freighted with convictions of faith and reason that go beyond immediate needs and extend to the full, complete human development of those we are privileged to serve. In a word, we want to help those we serve to be the persons God has meant them to become and we are obligated to work toward a society which fosters such growth. We want for them what we want for ourselves: namely, to exercise their full human potential – through decent living conditions, employment, healthcare, and healthy relationships.

But it doesn’t end there. Authentic human development includes one’s having the freedom to respond to God’s look of love, revealed on the face of Christ, conveyed in the sound of his voice. This is what successive Popes have called “integral human development”. It is economic but more than that; it is social, but more than that. It includes our basic human freedoms, including religious freedom. It is “integral” because it seeks the good of the whole person, body, mind, heart, and soul, in his or her relationship to family, friends, loved ones, wider communities, and ultimately to God, the source of all life and love, the source of a transcendent dignity and freedom that is granted “not by the generosity of the government but by the hand of God” (President John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961).

In a 2009 address, the future Pope Francis asserted: “ ... we cannot truly respond to the challenge of eradicating poverty if the poor remain objects targeted by paternalistic and interventionist action of the state and other organizations, instead of subjects, where state and society generate the social conditions that promote and safeguard their rights and enable them to be the builders of their own destiny.” When we view those we are privileged to serve not as objects of our largesse but rather as subjects, then the importance of religious liberty becomes clear. Subjects (human beings) have rights and liberties; objects (commodities, statistics and trends) do not.

Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI, in his social encyclical Caritas in Veritate, identified religious freedom as essential for integral human development. He saw two threats to religious liberty – the first is a fanatical fundamentalism that wages war against those who believe otherwise; and the second, more apropos of our culture, is societal and even governmental pressure, however subtle it may be, to encourage citizens to live as if God does not exist (practical atheism), or to foster religious indifference, or to make it difficult to bring one’s faith to the public square – not just in the sense of expressing one’s religious convictions out loud in public, but also in the sense of acting on those same convictions in the workplace and in the political process.

Pope Francis has commented more than once that it is often in the poor that we encounter a faith that is alive and real. This is not to romanticize the plight of the poor but to recognize how easily a comfortable life can obscure what is really important in our lives. As we seek to meet the immediate needs of the poor and vulnerable and as we engage in efforts to promote authentic human development, we do no one a favor by compromising religious freedom – by acquiescing to the creation of a society where more and more the government can privatize religious faith or otherwise discourage it by promoting an overarching & aggressive secularism. As Pope Benedict wrote: “God is the guarantor of man’s true development, inasmuch as, having created him in his image, he also establishes the transcendent dignity of men and women and feeds their innate yearning to ‘be more’” (Caritas in Veritate, no. 29). Robbing those we serve of the transcendent basis of their dignity and rights is simply not the path to true charity and authentic human development. This is how the poor become objects, not subjects, of our supposed largesse.

Love in Truth and Truth in Love
Now let’s return to the HHS mandate. As I’ve mentioned, the mandate insists that the health insurance plans of Catholic ministries that serve the poor, the vulnerable, and the sick, cover abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, contraception, and reproductive counseling that extends to underage girls.

Not everyone in society accepts the Church’s teachings on these matters. Not everyone agrees that use of these so-called preventive services is morally wrong. Nonetheless, it used to be the case that our country was more open to religious pluralism and more tolerant even of those moral teachings that go against the tide. Prior to the HHS mandate, the federal government gave wide latitude both to churches and private individuals with regard to decisions to exclude from employee insurance plans those things that are contrary to their religious and moral convictions; it also assumed that those who work for churches and even for-profit companies with a religious cast did so willingly, with full awareness and acceptance of the ground rules. Now the government is saying that only a very narrow swath of religious institutions, viz., house of worship and the like, can have such ‘ground rules’.

Further, it is from searching the Scriptures, listening to the Word of God, and reflecting with reason, faith, and charity on her pastoral experience, that the Church has concluded that these so-called “preventive services” are contrary to the Gospel and to the natural law, and thus contrary to authentic human dignity and true human development, a dignity and truth that are essential to the Church’s service to the poor and vulnerable. The same Gospel that impels the Church to offer compassionate care to others also constrains it from acting in ways contrary to human dignity. And just as the Church is enjoined by the Gospel to work toward integral human development, so too it is called to conduct that work with integrity, without unwarranted moral compromises that would undermine the very basis of its works of mercy, charity, and justice on behalf of those most in need.

In addition, the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel by working toward integral human development demands that her mission be kept whole – such that no social force, including government, would force a false separation between the Church’s faith and worship on the one hand and her service to the poor and the needy on the other. Yet this is precisely what the HHS mandate does. It permits us to fully express our faith through our houses of worship, but forces our schools, hospitals, and social service ministries to violate our Church’s teachings or face severe fines. But that’s not what it means to be Catholic: as Pope Francis has said, we can’t be “part-time Christians”, but must “live out our faith at every moment of every day.”

What’s more, the mandate could well be precedent-setting. It serves notice that, from now on, this is how the federal government will regard church ministries: only those that pertain to worship are fully religious and thus deserving of full religious liberty. Those that serve the common good would henceforth be regarded as quasi-religious institutions that are not fully deserving of religious liberty exemptions. In truth, hospitals, charities, social service agencies and schools are extensions of Jesus’ ministry of healing, mercy, and teaching. And once we agree that we can, in some way, participate in acting in ways at odds with the Gospel, then we have opened the door to our being forced by the government to providing so-called services that are even more morally repugnant than those required by the present HHS mandate, such as surgical abortion or physician-assisted suicide.

In a word, our hospitals, charities, and schools are extraordinary precisely because they recognize the transcendent dignity of the human person, and conduct their affairs, internally and externally, in a way that demonstrates the depth and sincerity of that conviction, that basis for mission. Inward and outward integrity is what prevents the Church from becoming a mere collection of N.G.O.s – non-governmental organizations that lack unifying convictions about human dignity and the common good. As Pope Francis has said, “If we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord .

Finally, of course, the HHS mandate affects the poor and those who serve them in a very direct way, imposing steep fines on schools, hospitals, and social-service ministries that choose not to act against their convictions. Those fines would greatly burden these ministries and their ability to serve those who rely on them.

As you can see, our struggle against the HHS mandate is not about the small print. It is about protecting the Church’s ability to serve the poor in dignity and truth, in proclaiming and acting upon the Gospel, as Pope Francis has said, “in its entirety.”

“Do Not Forget the Poor!” Remember Human Dignity
No one can doubt that Pope Francis has captured our hearts by his pastoral love – by his solidarity with the poor, by his own style of life, and by his example of direct service to those in need. He does so not only to warm our hearts or to gain a new hearing for the Gospel among the un-churched, but indeed because he genuinely knows, respects, and most importantly, loves those who are poor. So when he says to us, “Do not forget the poor!” he is also telling us, “Remember human dignity!” Remember our common patrimony of freedom and moral responsibility, which are the conditions of true human development, as well as the conditions in which direct charity flourishes.

It is tempting to take short-cuts – to lay aside the onerous and often unpopular task of defending religious freedom when it is challenged in ways that are buried in rules, regulations, local ordinances, and judicial decisions. But we don’t arrive at the Kingdom of God by shortcuts. Neither do we arrive there by “either-or” thinking – either we defend religious freedom or else we serve the poor. We are called to do both. And to do them both generously as inseparable parts of one mission!

Thanks for listening! May God bless us and keep us always in his love!