By Ambria Hammel
Catholic News Service
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Americans are “once again at a crossroads in how religious freedom is understood and exercised in our country,” Baltimore’s archbishop told a national gathering of Catholic business leaders and their spouses.
“We remain a nation where most people still value some form of religious faith,” Archbishop William E. Lori said in an address in Scottsdale.
More than 500 top-ranking Catholic business leaders attended the Feb. 7-9 at the Legatus Summit, aimed at strengthening members’ resolve to remain authentically Catholic in the marketplace.
Archbishop Lori’s Feb. 8 address brought a whirlwind history lesson, ranging from the country’s Founding Fathers to the contemporary discussion of human rights and the “frontier of liberty” described by Pope Benedict XVI.
The archbishop repeatedly affirmed the need to have principles grounded in natural law and invited Legatus members to use personal influence to convert the hearts of others.
The church, thanks to immigration from Central and South America, continues to grow in the United States. The country, the archbishop said, remains what Abraham Lincoln described it to be: “the last, best hope on earth.”
But the place of religion is slipping.
“While a solid majority of Americans still believe in God and describe themselves as Christians, fewer people in almost all denominations practice their faith,” he said. “This is true especially among the young. It is estimated that only 27 percent of Catholics attend Mass regularly while the number of sacramental marriages has declined steadily in recent decades.”
Addressing such realities are part of the new evangelization, in which Pope Benedict XVI challenged the church to engage during the Year of Faith. It also relates to the threats on religious liberty, the archbishop said.
“If throughout the country our churches were filled to capacity and all Catholics were vibrantly evangelized and systematically catechized, religious freedom would not be challenged so readily by bad laws, judicial decisions and administrative regulations,” he said.
Lack of religious practice leads to a lack of belief in moral truths, Archbishop Lori said, adding that an understanding of natural law, indispensable in a democratic form of government, is also lacking.
Religious freedom is limited, he said, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate requiring most religious employers – including Catholic universities, hospitals and social service agencies – to cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their employee health plans despite these employers’ moral objections to such coverage.
The new proposed rules released by HHS Feb. 1 “remain problematic, especially because they give no relief to conscientious private for-profit employers,” he said.
“That we are even engaging in this long struggle over the HHS mandate goes to the larger points that we are losing our freedom to create a workplace rooted in Catholic values, such as respect for human life from conception until natural death,” Archbishop Lori said, “and that religion is increasingly regarded almost as a foreign element in an open society where there are no fixed truths or values to guide the journey.”
That many fellow Catholics and citizens do not see that religious liberty is threatened means the church must do a better job evangelizing and catechizing, he said, emphasizing marriage and family life. Schools, charities and health care institutions must not be “Catholic in name only.”
In his hourlong address, Archbishop Lori noted the ideas of the Founding Fathers were rooted in natural law, and they also were “far from hostile to religion.”
“Rather, they saw religious toleration and freedom as a great achievement and the separation of church and state was meant to protect that freedom,” the archbishop said, “not hem it in or to eliminate it.”
The Founding Fathers saw a relationship between rights and moral obligations and understood the value for democracy of virtue, morality and religion, he said.
The modern civil rights movement, the archbishop pointed out, was rooted “in deep convictions about the dignity of the human person whose rights and freedom are to be recognized and guaranteed by law.”
If the objective is to expand human rights to include “behaviors heretofore deemed immoral,” then the documents of the founding of the United States must be stripped of “any reference to the Creator and his will or words and distinctions that define reality,” the archbishop explained.
Such an “unhinged and ever expansive world of human rights does not merely hamper religious freedom; it imperils it,” Archbishop Lori said. “Conscientious individuals and religious institutions are now more and more finding themselves in the crosshairs of a hardened secular culture dominated by the views of a powerful few.”
First, religious and moral teachings are scrutinized and public opinion is shifted away from them, he said. Second, laws contrary to these teachings are enacted. Third, “allowances are made for such teachings through exemptions and carve outs,” he explained. These “allowances” shrink over time and “some religious and moral teachings are branded as a form of intolerable bigotry.”
The archbishop urged Legatus members to engage their network of family, colleagues and friends to understand how profoundly religious liberty is being threatened today.
Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted celebrated the opening Mass Feb. 7 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church. Legatus, in Latin, means ambassador, “one sent on a mission,” the bishop said.
There is nothing to fear, Bishop Olmsted told the members of more than 70 chapters. Catholics, as part of the body of Christ, are always joined with one another and strengthened through the Eucharist, he said.
“God cannot and will not fail to correct an injustice,” the bishop said in his homily.
Hammel is a staff writer at The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Phoenix Diocese.
Copyright (c) 2013 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops