Let me thank you warmly for the opportunity to address you today about the topic of protecting, defending, and fostering religious liberty in the public square. In a special way I want to thank the bishops of the great State of Missouri for extending the invitation to me to speak to you today and the Missouri Catholic Conference for making this important topic the focus of your Annual Assembly in this critical election year.
Religious liberty is a gift we must never take for granted and must remain vigilant in safeguarding. We know this from our country’s own history and from the history of other nations that this most precious of our freedoms can erode or even be lost. Time and again our Holy Father has spoken out courageously on behalf of victims of religious persecution, especially those in the Middle East and Africa. When a group of U.S. bishops met with the Holy Father earlier this year, the Pope delivered an important talk on religious liberty, in which he said this: “It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres … Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion,” the Pope said.
To tell the truth, however, many people of good will, including many fellow Catholics, do not think that religious freedom is threatened in the United States. After all, our churches are open, our institutions continue to function, and on the surface it doesn’t seem as though much has changed. But we are here to look beneath the surface, to see clearly the threats, to analyze them, and then to resolve to address them as individuals and as a community of faith.
II. The Premier See and Religious Liberty
The Archdiocese of Baltimore, which I am now privileged to serve, is the first Catholic Diocese in the United States. Founded in 1789, it is very near to the very heart of the American experiment in which the God-given gift of religious liberty is recognized and protected in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
As you know, the First Amendment has two parts: the first prevents the government from establishing a single national religion, and the second part guarantees our right to the free exercise of religion – not simply freedom of worship but indeed the freedom of believers to live their faith, to influence the culture, to establish and run institutions like schools and hospitals in accord with their church’s teaching, and so forth. This is one of the primary reasons why Americans at the close of the 18th century chose to break with England – to enjoy and practice religious freedom which they understood as granted by God and not by the government.
The nation’s first bishop, John Carroll, hailed from a distinguished Maryland family. His cousin, Charles Carroll, was the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Although the Carroll’s were a well-to-do and distinguished family, they were not exempt from the unjust legal restrictions which Maryland colonial law imposed on its Catholic citizens in the 18th century. Among them was a prohibition against Catholics holding public office. Nonetheless active in colonial politics, Charles Carroll recognized early on that only independence from the British crown would bring about authentic religious and civic freedom in America. He risked his life, family, and property in supporting the revolutionary cause, but he did so, and I quote: “To obtain religious as well as civil liberty” – and he added – “God grant this religious liberty may be preserved in these states to the end of time.”
The history of our country is replete with anti-Catholic attacks. We have only to think of the Know Nothing Party, the Blaine Amendments, efforts to outlaw Catholic schools in Oregon, the anti-Catholic activity of the Ku Klux Klan, and the like. Indeed, that anti-Catholic attitude persists in our culture even today. Many see the Catholic Church’s hierarchical structure and moral teaching as foreign to a completely secular state. Anti-Catholicism, sadly, remains an underlying current that surfaces whenever the Church is in crisis from without or from within.
By contrast, one who championed the view that it is indeed possible to be a loyal Catholic and a patriotic American was one of my many distinguished predecessors, the 9th Archbishop of Baltimore, James Cardinal Gibbons, who led the Archdiocese from 1877 until 1921. On the one hand, he defended the proposition (that one could be a loyal Catholic and a patriotic American) against the anti-Catholic attitudes of his day and, on the other, against Old World suspicion of pluralistic democratic government. Named a Cardinal in 1886, he went to Rome to take possession of his titular Church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, located on a site where it is said that Christians worshipped since the 3rd century.There Gibbons spoke these words:
“For myself, as a citizen of the United States,
without closing my eyes to our defects as a nation,
I proclaim with a deep sense of pride and gratitude,
and in this great capital of Christendom,
that I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us
the aegis of its protection without interfering in the legitimate exercise
of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Christ.”
Gibbons understood that the American experiment was not perfect but he championed the view that our form of government protects the God-given gift of religious freedom and respects the role of churches in buttressing the moral underpinnings so essential for the right use of freedom and for true human flourishing. By preaching, worship, organized programs of charity and education, churches point to the fact that, although we live in a secular culture, we human beings have a transcendent origin and destiny and that it is our responsibility to seek the truth and to be formed in virtue.
But today, the vision of our founding Fathers – and Gibbons’ own keen understanding as to how to actualize that vision – are being relentlessly challenged by an overarching secularism which seeks to marginalize religion, silence its voice in the public square, and force its institutions to conform to secular orthodoxy. And let’s be honest: it has become possible to challenge religious freedom in this way because so many people have marginalized religious faith in their own lives. Catholics and others who no longer practice the faith contribute to secularism. To the extent that we fail to bear witness to our faith and to engage in evangelization, we too contribute to a secularism that excludes religious faith from the public square. Thus, this Year of Faith and the New Evangelization are linked to religious liberty. Knowing and loving the Person of Christ, rededicating ourselves to knowing, understanding, and loving the content of the Faith, asking the Holy Spirit for the grace to bear witness to the faith with fresh energy, conviction, and love – all this goes hand in hand with defending religious freedom in our nation!
III. At the Service of the Common Good
One of the ways that secularists seek to marginalize faith is by embedding in law a definition of what religion is and what it is meant to do. It is an extremely narrow definition found in the HHS mandate (more on that later) but also in various state laws. It is a definition that reduces freedom of religion to freedom of worship and seeks to confine the Church’s activities to the four walls of the parish church. A church activity is deemed “religious” only if the church in question hires mainly its own, serves mainly its own, and exists almost exclusively to inculcate its own doctrine. But the moment a church seeks to serve the common good or influence public opinion then such a church and its activities are deemed “secular” and we are told that we must play by the rules – and the rules often mean violating our own teaching, not in preaching, but in practice.
By contrast, Pope Benedict points out that the responsibility of individual Christians and the Christian community to love our neighbors as God has loved us, is at the very heart of the Gospel – and that from the very beginning the Church has responded to this Gospel mandate by means of organized charities–pooling resources and sharing them with the needy. Catholic Charities programs throughout Missouri live out this mandate every day, as do programs of the St. Vincent de Paul Society and many others. Affirming the human dignity of all, but most especially the vulnerable, and serving the common good of society – this is not a secular “add-on” to church activity but rather flows from our life of faith and worship. What we believe and how we worship, gives rise to “a charity that evangelizes” to use the wonderful phrase of Blessed Pope John Paul II. And this is expressed in person-to-person charity, in our educational and charitable institutions, and in our advocacy in the public square for a just and peaceful society, an advocacy that is carried on not from a perspective of blind faith but rather from a perspective of reason enlightened by faith.
Affirming the dignity of individuals and serving the common good is not an easy task. It includes a wide range of human goods, such as health, education, public safety, etc. It is not just a question of trying to bring about the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’, for such calculations often exclude minorities and vulnerable. Rather, the common good is achieved when persons are given opportunity to flourish, to fulfill their God-given potential, to develop and use their talents, to flourish physically, socially, and yes, spiritually and religiously. Government has a role to play in bringing about these conditions and probably it will always be a matter of debate how extensive that role should be. Yet, what is often overlooked is the role of intermediate structures that help promote the common good, the conditions for human flourishing. These intermediate structures include the family, churches, schools, and the like. Think for a moment what the breakdown of the family has meant for our culture. Think how many social problems would be headed off at the pass if all our children were growing up in strong families, with moms and dads who love each other and their children,
who provide role models and teach their children how to relate to the opposite sex, and who impart basic truths and values, who train their children in virtue.
In Maryland and three other states, voters are being urged to be vigorous in upholding marriage as between one man and one woman in referendum votes exactly one month from today. I warmly congratulate you and your fellow citizens of Missouri for upholding traditional marriage in your state – that is a great encouragement for us in the heat of this battle. All of us need remember the role of these intermediate institutions in democracy. Not only do they help form productive and enlightened citizens, they also stand as a buffer between the power of the state and individual conscience.
Without abandoning its legitimate role in seeing to the health and safety of its citizens, our form of government is obliged to recognize the religious freedom of individuals and the freedom of religion that inheres in religious institutions that serve not only their own members but also the common good of society. In a word, protecting the rights and human dignity of individuals and serving the common good through a network of charities and schools are deeply engrained in the Church’s mission.
IV. HHS Mandate
Until recently the Federal Government has accommodated churches seeking to serve the wider society in accord with the faith that inspires such service. It has refrained, by and large, from entangling itself in the internal life of churches and let them serve the common good according to their own convictions … that is, until now.
In August 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published its Preventive Services Rule and asked for comment. This rule was part of implementing the Affordable Care Act. It required virtually all employers to provide through their employee benefits plans abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception. Religious employers could be exempt from doing so if they conformed to a very narrow definition, which I mentioned already, namely, the religious employer could qualify for an exemption so long as it hires members of that religion and serves its own members and existed almost solely to promote religious doctrine. Anything else was deemed by the government as a “secular” enterprise. If a religious organization hires people of other faiths, if it seeks to serve people of all faiths and no faith at all, and if it engages in education, social services, and charity – then, according to the HHS rule, it is not “religious enough” to be exempt from having to provide surgical procedures & pharmaceuticals judged to be immoral. And this came after the Hosanna-Tabor case in which the U.S. Department of Justice tried to argue that a church had no more rights in hiring its ministers than a labor union or a social club have in hiring their employees – a view that the Supreme Court unanimously rejected.
The point is that the Administration is drawing lines where we, the sponsors of religious works don’t draw lines ourselves. The government’s attempt to tell the Church which of our institutions seem religious to the state is profoundly offensive and entangles the government in the internal life of religious institutions. Unless we stop it now, this attempt to narrow the role of religion in our culture will spread like a virus through our nation’s laws and policies. It this attempt by the government goes unchecked, the future will look like this: either we stay in the pews or else violate our consciences … not a good menu from which to choose.
The Catholic Church, joined by ecumenical and interfaith partners, has resisted through direct talks with the Administration, by seeking legislative remedies, by filing suits in federal court in various districts, and by passing state laws like the one here in Missouri—and here I’d like to pause here to congratulate the Missouri state legislature, the Bishops of Missouri, the Missouri Catholic Conference & the many parishioners whose work and witness led to the override of Governor Nixon’s veto of Senate Bill 749, the religious liberty bill. You have given hope to the rest of the nation by standing together—Church and Government—for the rights given by God and protected by our Founding Fathers and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. This law would ensure that no one is forced to violate their religious beliefs by having to pay for the destruction of unborn life. Be assured of my prayers that the current court challenge will result in a victory for religious freedom, for life, and for our Constitution!
Yes, we’ve resisted the H.H.S. mandate, this attempt by the government to marginalize faith and define religion, in various ways: by engaging in the Year of Faith focused on the new evangelization; by a Marian prayer campaign, including a Mass and Pilgrimage for Life and Liberty in the Nation’s Capital at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception on October 14; by launching a texting campaign (text Freedom to 377-377), as well as by scholarly conferences, by other forms of advocacy, and much more … including here in Missouri where people like Mary Beth Rolwes of St. Clement of Rome Parish in Des Peres helped produce signs promoting religious liberty and where a Rosary crusade is using the power of prayer to confront these grave incursions on our religious freedom.
But the H.H.S. mandate struggle goes on. None of the so-called accommodations offered by the Administration help; none of them were devised with direct input from the bishops. This struggle has been portrayed in the media as a struggle about contraception. We know it is not. It is a struggle to preserve a fundamental 1st Amendment freedom, viz., the exercise of religion free of governmental interference. What underlines this fact is that most of our ecumenical partners don’t share our teaching on contraception – but they recognize that the Federal Government has decided to breach the wall of separation, to come into the Church’s territory to force the Church’s hand regarding its teaching on faith and morals, to compel its institutions to behave like secular institutions, not faith-based institutions. Once the State can force the Church’s hand on these issues, the door is open for the State to force the Church’s hand on almost anything else—and not just our Church, but all churches.
What is true in the State of Maryland is true here in Missouri—that the Catholic Church is the largest provider of social and charitable services to the poorest of the poor. We are the largest private educator and we struggle largely at our own expense to educate some of the most disadvantaged children … often lifting them up out of poverty and transforming their lives. We want to continue doing this but in fidelity to the faith that inspired us to undertake these services in the first place. This is the kind of country the United States was meant to be.
We also believe that private employers who want to follow their consciences should be allowed to do so – and until now they were – This includes an air conditioning company in Colorado run by a Catholic family that recently won injunctive relief from a Federal judge from having to conform to the HHS mandate. It includes organizations that are not Church owned but serve the Church’s mission, such as Our Sunday Visitor and the Knights of Columbus. Churches are responsible employers; so are conscientious employers such as those I’ve mentioned. They provide good jobs and good benefits – they are not part of the problem but rather they are part of the solution! No one is forced to work for an institution based on Christian principles and besides all this, the government has exempted many groups from providing these services by “grandfathering them” – but it has not yet budged with regard to the objections of the Catholic Church, other churches, and private employers with conscientious objections to the HHS rule.
The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and enacted in 1786, proclaims it tyrannical for the government to force an individual to contribute money “to the propagation of opinions in which he disbelieves” – but that is the net effect of the HHS mandate on private employers, on church-related employers, and on churches themselves. It is up to us to make sure that such tyranny does not become the law of the land. Sadly, this was not the posture of a federal court judge who recently dismissed the lawsuit filed by Mr. Frank O’Brien, owner of a small mining company in St. Louis. Mr. O’Brien sued over the HHS mandate, which took effect this summer and which forced him to violate his religious beliefs by providing health insurance coverage of abortion drugs, sterilizations and contraception. Shockingly, the judge determined that Mr. O’Brien would not be violating his religious convictions by providing the coverage. The judge in the case referred to the subsidy of abortion drugs and contraceptives by a religiously conscientious employer as a “slight burden on religious exercise” yet condemned the plaintiff’s reliance on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, saying the 1993 statute “is not a means to force one’s religious practices upon others.”
While much, indeed, is being done to turn back the HHS mandate—and we will continue to exercise every reasonable avenue to undo this onerous law-even if the mandate were upended, the struggle to preserve religious liberty would not be finished. Major Catholic international relief agencies still face discrimination in competing for contracts because they refuse to violate Catholic teaching. Catholic Charities in various parts of the country are still forced to close down their adoption services because they will not place children with same-sex couples and individuals, and a recent Vermont inn-keeper was forced to pay $30,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a lesbian couple who wanted to hold their wedding reception at the inn. The owners of the inn believe marriage is reserved for one man and one woman and have been forced to turn away all wedding receptions. In secular universities and colleges, religious groups are being de-legitimized and pushed off campus. And all of us are familiar with relentless attempts to remove all references to religion on public lands. Instead of being a land that is tolerant of religious faith, we are becoming quite intolerant.
At the end of the day, we will be judged by our fidelity to our responsibilities and how we sustain that fidelity. Our responsibilities call us to rally for religious freedom in the context of the national common good and as a beacon of hope for people suffering religious persecution in various parts of the world. We are called to engage our fellow citizens and government leaders robustly but do so in civility, respect, and love. This is the pattern given us by the saints. This is the pattern give us by our early Christian brothers and sisters, so eloquently evoked by your own Archbishop Carlson from this very Capitol Building earlier this year. “How did the early Church survive and thrive in a hostile culture … how did it come to pass that the Church is still living reality, but the Roman Empire lives in history books,” he asked. “It was the witness of believers.” This is our path now, as we sustain our national promise of freedom and equality for succeeding generations.
Thank you for your attention, your support, and your prayers. I pray this day will be faith-filled, inspiring, and affirming and I have been pleased to be a small part of it. I urge you to vote in the critical election next month and to keep alive the civil, necessary public debate surrounding issues of importance, including those of religious liberty, in the days and weeks leading up to November 6. And I urge you to continue taking the faith that inspires you to worship on Sunday, out into the public square the other six days of the week. That truly is living your faith, something we are each called to do by our Baptism and our discipleship. God bless our Church, God bless the great State of Missouri, and God bless these United States of America!