By George P. Matysek Jr.
Speaking a year ago at Calvert Hall College High School in Towson, John Garvey predicted that threats to religious liberty would become the most important issue facing the Catholic Church in the United States in the next half century.
The president of The Catholic University of America couldn’t have been more prescient.
In recent months, the U.S. bishops have been at loggerheads with the Obama administration over a new federal health care mandate that requires all private health care plans to cover contraceptives, sterilizations and abortifacient drugs.
The bishops called the administration’s religious exemption provision “arbitrarily narrow” and pledged a vigorous defense of religious freedom and conscience rights.
It’s ironic that the bishops’ battle comes exactly 125 years after Baltimore Cardinal James Gibbons delivered a landmark address on religious freedom.
Speaking at Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere on the occasion of his taking possession of his titular church, the Baltimore-born Gibbons extolled the U.S. government precisely for its commitment to religious freedom and non-interference.
“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 Jesus Christ,” Cardinal Gibbons said in the March 25, 1887 address.
The United States has “liberty without license” and “authority without despotism,” Cardinal Gibbons added.
“She has no frowning fortifications to repel the invader,” he continued, “for we are at peace with all the world.”
“Her harbors are open in the Atlantic and Pacific to welcome the honest immigrant who comes to advance his temporal interest and to find a peaceful home,” the American prelate said.
The U.S. government finds its strength “in the majesty and supremacy of the law, in the loyalty of her citizens to that law and in the affection of our people for their free institutions,” Cardinal Gibbons said.
The bishops of his era were “indebted in no small degree to the civil liberty we enjoy in our enlightened republic,” the new cardinal said.
In its April 2, 1887 issue reporting on the cardinal’s address, The Catholic Mirror – predecessor to the Catholic Review – reported that Cardinal Gibbons’ voice was “strong and ringing” as he proclaimed his message.
Arrayed in what The Mirror described as “splendid robes,” a “white fur cope,” “crimson silk mantle” and “long train,” Cardinal Gibbons had essentially held up the American model of religious liberty as one that could allow the church to thrive.
Now is not the time for the great American tradition of religious freedom to take a step back.
George P. Matysek Jr. is the assistant managing editor of the Catholic Review.