Introduction: A Local Struggle with Large Implications
Arriving in Baltimore just a few months ago, I found that the Archdiocese together with pro-life pregnancy centers in the city were joined together in a struggle against the City of Baltimore. Some time earlier, the administration had decided that these centers would be obliged to inform the public through a posted sign, as a matter of so-called “truth-in-advertising,” that they do not perform or refer for abortions or provide contraceptive services. In other words, the city was forcing these pro-life pregnancy centers which provide basic necessities such as formula, diapers, and gently used cribs… to use speech in a way that would drive away the very people they were seeking to attract, viz., those facing unwanted and unplanned pregnancies that they were seeking to terminate. It will not surprise you to hear that the impetus for this city ordinance was a report by NARAL and Planned Parenthood which claimed that women who entered these centers were being “misled” about their pregnancy options. This is an interesting “find” considering that in 30 years of existence there had not been a single complaint filed against the largest pregnancy center in Baltimore. Baltimore, of course, is not unique; other cities have attempted similar measures.
Efforts to resolve the impasse through dialogue failed and so the Archdiocese and other pro-life groups went to court to defend their right not to be compelled to say things that would hamper the mission of these pro-life pregnancy centers – and that would force them to portray themselves as harsh, narrow, or judgmental. They were seeking the right to use the God-given gift of freedom of speech to attract and welcome those who were seeking critical assistance so that they could carry their babies to term. They were seeking to use freedom of speech to encourage couples and individuals to bring their children into the world, to provide them with competent and compassionate care and counseling, and to help set them on a course of providing for their children.
Let me tell you about the outcome of the case before getting to the moral of the story. The Archdiocese and its allies won in Federal Court but the City and its allies took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals which, happily, also upheld the freedom of speech of these pro-life pregnancy centers. In addition, the city administration can be ordered to pay for the legal costs incurred by the Archdiocese and these pro-life pregnancy centers in defending its right to freedom of speech.
And here’s both the moral of the story and the theme of this talk: our freedoms are linked – the right to life, religious liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. They are linked intellectually, morally, and legally and this linkage finds its home in the human person created in God’s image and likeness and endowed with inherent & inalienable dignity. For, as Thomas Jefferson once said, “God who gave us life gave us liberty.” Indeed, let me share with you the entire quote which is engraved on the beautiful Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are a gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
When the government effectively decreed, as did the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott and Roe v. Wade decisions, that certain human beings really are not human beings then, in the same breath, it also denied them the fundamental protections of their dignity and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. And in the very act of decreeing who is and who is not a human being, the government has implied that it, not God, is the source of both life and liberty. In recent times the government has set itself up as the discoverer of new rights with no textual basis in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, such as the right to privacy. Now these newly discovered “rights” are trumping the few fundamental rights which our founding Fathers in their wisdom recognized as fundamental & God-given, and singled out as worthy of protection in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Privatizing Our Freedoms
Without wishing to overstate matters, I would assert that the right to privacy, baldly asserted in the majority opinion of Roe v. Wade, has poisoned our legal system in ways that are becoming ever clearer. For the so-called right to privacy has led to the view that religion and religious rights must be privatized, and to some extent also, that freedom of speech and assembly must be privatized. It is fast becoming the prevailing view that these fundamental freedoms must be privatized and thus diminished, when these conflict with the all-important private right to choose whatever one wants within the arbitrary and ever expanding constraints of the law.
Two examples will hopefully illustrate what I am trying to say:
- In its ill-starred attempt to force conscientious individuals and church organizations to facilitate and fund abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception in their health insurance plans for their employees – the Department of Health and Human Services included an exemption. Religions could be exempt from violating their teachings if they qualified for the exemption by fitting into a government definition of what a religion – any religion – is: an organization that mainly hires its own, mainly serves its own, and exists almost solely to teach its own doctrines. Any religious organization which goes beyond those narrow guardrails is not deemed by the government as sufficiently religious to qualify for an exemption. Notice that the governmental definition of religion is entirely private. When religions run hospitals or schools or charities that serve the public, then, according to the government, they are no longer religious and thus must “play by the rules” – and the cardinal rule is that the right to privacy, the private right of choice, trumps all else.
- My second example is more diffuse so please bear with me. It has to do with privatizing not only the public role of religion but also privatizing freedom of speech and assembly when it is perceived as advocating against the so-called ‘right of privacy.’ Some have suggested that pro-life advocacy is hate speech which needs to be controlled and limited. Laws sprung up around the country which forbad pro-life advocates from gathering near abortion clinics or which put severe limits on their ability to associate and speak freely. As pro-life leaders we do not condone hateful speech or actions in the defense of life, for we know only too well how it harms the very cause to which we are so dedicated and violates the command of the Gospel we seek to serve. Yet, these laws are often blunt instruments that indiscriminately limit not only freedom of speech but also freedom of assembly. How often it is suggested that the Catholic Church ought to be stripped of its tax exempt status because its pro-life and pro-family advocacy is partisan? Think of the priest in Canada who was accused of committing a hate crime because he used the pulpit to defend traditional marriage. I raise this example because we are no longer sure whether or not we will face the same turn of events in our country as well.
The message that our culture is sending more frequently and loudly is this: If you want to worship and teach in the privacy of home or church, that’s tolerable. If you want to believe privately that human life has inherent dignity and worth from the moment of conception until natural death, that’s tolerable but you may not witness to that teaching in how you run your business or in how you run faith-based hospitals, charities, and schools. Let me add that we would be foolish to imagine that pharmaceuticals and surgical procedures covered in the HHS mandate represent some sort of hard and fast boundary that the government will never cross; this mandate is just the beginning of a movement to privatize the rights of every person and institution standing in the way of the culture of death. Already the State of Connecticut has attempted to decree that abortion, not just abortion-inducing drugs, is an “essential healthcare service” that must be governed under the federal health care reform law. Stay tuned for physician assisted suicide. That’s likely to be next on the list.
Yet, just as threats against life and freedom are linked, so too our defense of life and freedom are linked in profound and beautiful ways in the teachings of the Church, in the Church’s social doctrine as articulated in the papal Magisterium of Blessed Pope John Paul II & Pope Benedict XVI . . . to which we now turn.
The Teaching of the Church on the Transcendent Dignity of the Human Person
Let’s begin with an interesting juxtaposition. In his inspired encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, Blessed Pope John Paul II offers a reprise of basic human rights, and then he adds: “The first right presented in this list is the right to life, from conception to its natural end, which is the condition for the exercise of all other human rights, and in particular, implies the illicitness of every form of procured abortion and euthanasia” (EV, no. 2). In his masterful encyclical on the Church’s social doctrine, Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II again reviews the landscape of human rights, and then adds: “In a certain sense, the source and synthesis of these rights is religious freedom, understood as the right to live in the truth of one’s faith and in conformity with one’s transcendent dignity as a person” (CA, no. 47).
At first glance, it might appear that the two statements are in competition – the right to life seems to be vying with religious liberty for prime billing. Of course, a human being cannot enjoy the God-given gift of religious liberty unless he or she is allowed to be born and to develop as God would wish. So in this sense, the right to life clearly has pride of place. Yet, we must ask why the Church’s teaching so clearly defends human life from conception until natural death, from its earliest moment to its last. Why does the Church both in word and action defend the humanity of those whose lives society tends to deem as burdensome, even worthless? Is it not because the right to life and the right of religious freedom are, in reality, two sides of one coin, two conjoined aspects of one profound teaching?
Pope Benedict helps us see this point quite clearly. In his address last year to the Diplomatic Corps accredited to the Holy See, he put it this way: “Religious freedom is indeed the first of human rights, not only because it was historically the first to be recognized but also because it touches the constitutive dimension of man, his relation with his Creator…” (Address to Diplomatic Corps, January 10, 2011). In other words, we passionately defend human life not just because human beings have large crania and opposing thumbs, but because they are inherently related to their Creator, not merely as an object is related to its maker but as a subject, made in God’s image and likeness, and endowed with inherent dignity and fundamental, natural rights. When religious freedom is acknowledged, the dignity of the human person is therefore respected at its root. And when religious freedom is rejected, so too is the precious human dignity given us by our Creator.
Similarly, in his 2011 message for the World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict wrote that, “…Religious freedom is the source of moral freedom.” He goes on to say that, “Openness to truth & perfect goodness, openness to God, is rooted in human nature; it confers full dignity on each individual and is the guarantee of full mutual respect between persons” (World Day of Peace Message, January 1, 2011). So the right to life and the right to religious freedom are, as it were, joined at the hip in the very notion of the transcendent dignity of the human person, ‘endowed by the Creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
The Teaching of the Church on What Constitutes a Just Society
This brings us to the threshold of a second way in which the right to life & the right of religious freedom are interrelated & it’s this: the culture of a society which respects human life will respect religious freedom and the culture of a society which respects religious freedom will respect human life. Respect for the God-given dignity of the human person is not only about individuals, it also has to do with what kind of a society, what kind of a culture we are living in. Pope John Paul II famously coined the expression “the culture of life” and “the culture of death” and he starkly contrasted them. As we know so well, if the liberal democracies of the world would be true to their own solemn proclamations of the rights and dignity of man, then they would protect the lives of the newly conceived and the frail elderly (cf. EV, no. 18). Departing from the wisdom of their founding documents and admirable proclamations such as the U.N. Declaration of Universal Human Rights, liberal democracies around the world increasingly promote contraception, abortion, euthanasia, divorce, and same sex marriage as the primary ways of defending and promoting human rights and dignity – thereby using medical know-how to pit the strong against the weak, and undermining for children the one structure most needed for human flourishing, namely, the family– a stable loving union of husband and wife.
What accounts for this contradiction (with which we live every day) … a culture shaped by laws, policies, news and entertainment which contradict official proclamations of human rights, a contradiction which “threatens the entire culture of human rights” (EV, no. 18)? Among the factors that account for this contradiction, Pope John Paul II cites these: the tendency to link the dignity of human life to the ability to communicate and make choices; a completely individualistic notion of freedom understood as freedom of choice which undermines any real notion of solidarity and responsibility for the common good and results in a society of rugged individuals with competing, co-existing freedoms; a notion of freedom severed from moral truth, which, when combined with the rugged individualism just mentioned, results in a culture wherein the rights and opinions of the strong prevail over the rights and opinions of the weak; “the right to life ceases to be such because it is no longer founded on the inviolable dignity of the human person but is made the subject of the will of the stronger part” (EV, no. 20); when the State usurps God’s role as the Giver of Life, it also usurps God’s role as the author of our fundamental freedoms.
All these factors help explain why liberal democracies officially committed to human rights are prone to compromise & even negate the most fundamental human right, the right to life, but the deepest analysis of this problem takes us to the heart of our topic. Again, to quote Pope John Paul II: “We have to go to the heart of the tragedy … the eclipse of the sense of God [leads to an eclipse of the sense] of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles, succeeds at times in putting the Christian community to the test.” In a nutshell, that seems to sum up our situation, when the Catholic Church and many other faith communities struggle not only with the H.H.S. mandate but a host of challenges to religious freedom, often because of their refusal to go along with the culture of death.
The separation of faith and culture, the marginalization of God and the things of God, has led to a diminished understanding of the human person that renders human life disposable when it becomes burdensome or inconvenient. To quote Pope Benedict, “a freedom which is hostile or indifferent to God becomes self-negating and does not guarantee full respect for others.”
Building a Culture of Life and Freedom
Dear friends, let us be of good cheer. Indeed, let us remember how often Pope John Paul II repeated for us the Lord’s own words, “Be not afraid!” The challenge is great and it is growing but far from succumbing to discouragement let us be energized by the Holy Spirit who leads us to the full truth about the human person revealed in Christ and who pours into our hearts that divine love which equips us to evangelize the culture of which we are a part, to transform it from a culture of death and a dictatorship of relativism into a culture of life, love, truth, freedom, and joy.
Sharing the faith and wisdom of the Church’s teaching, united with the Holy Father and the Bishops, encouraged by the fellowship that is ours, strengthened by our communion with the saints in heaven, we are truly sent as missionaries to a culture of which we are a part, as witnesses to human life, dignity, and freedom. We come not in the narrowness of partisanship but rather in the fullness of a truth and love, accessible to reason but known most fully and securely by faith in Christ, ‘who, in revealing to us the Father and his love, reveals us to ourselves and brings to light our most high calling’ (cf. GS, 22). To a society that pits individual self-interest against the common good, we have the opportunity to show how “both life and freedom are the great gift of the Creator placed at the service of the person and of his fulfillment through the gift of self and openness to others” (EV, no. 19). Amid the din of endless political and social commentary and noisy entertainment, we have been given the opportunity to be a faith-filled voice of reason, for as Pope Benedict put it, “Our tradition does not speak from blind faith, but from a rational perspective which links our commitment to building an authentically just, human and prosperous society to our ultimate assurance that the cosmos is possessed of an inner logic accessible to human reason” (Ad Limina Address, USA Bishops, Region IV, Jan. 19, 2012). Far from being a private, self-enclosed affair, as the proposed governmental definition of religion would have it, “the Church’s witness by its very nature is public”(Ibid). So let us continue to enter the public square, boldly and confidently, proposing rational arguments with a love and a clarity that flows from a vibrant life of faith.
For us this means helping our fellow citizens rediscover “those essential and innate human and moral values which flow from the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the human person – values which no individual, no majority, and no State can ever create, modify, or destroy, but must only acknowledge, respect, and promote…” (EV, no. 71). In doing so we tap into what is best in our national heritage, for as George Washington said so famously, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality remain indispensible supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who would labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props on the duties of men and of citizens. The mere politician (he goes on to say) equally with the pious man ought to respect and cherish them” (Farewell Address, Sept. 19, 1796).
It was little more than a year ago that the Conference of Bishops decided to make religious freedom one of its urgent and overarching priorities, related indeed to its efforts to defend human life, to protect marriage, and to seek to serve the marginalized, the stranger, the poor and the sick. In setting about to defend religious liberty from attacks on all sides we had only to look to you, our co-workers and friends in the pro-life vineyard. There we saw courageous and steadfast leadership coupled with perseverance; there we saw lessons of practical wisdom to be learned in successfully communicating not only with those already convinced but also with a wider audience that is sometimes hostile, sometimes unconvinced, and all too often, indifferent to the truths and values that are essential for the healthy functioning of a democratic government.
What I hope is clear from my remarks this morning is that the cause of life and the cause of religious freedom are not competing but complementary. It is no accident that the entry point for compromising religious freedom and indeed all of our fundamental freedoms, is a life issue. It is no accident that the point of contention of the HHS mandate turns out to be abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and contraception – with abortion itself and physician assisted suicide undoubtedly waiting in the wings.
Joining forces, we have had some success, whether it is the Fortnight for Freedom or the launch of our texting campaign, “Text ‘Freedom’ [or] ‘Libertad’ to, 377-377”, to help us communicate rapidly about this fast-moving topic. In preparing this talk we received the happy news that a federal judge in Colorado issued a preliminary ruling that protected the rights of private business owners to run their business according to the principles of Catholic teaching, and imminently a new wave of lawsuits is being filed around the country. We are seeking to maintain the accommodations of religious freedom that are already found in the amendment authored by the late Sen. Frank Church – one of the first fruits of the pro-life movement— which has served us well for nearly forty years. We also seek to raise up a host of religious liberty issues— well beyond the HHS mandate most of which arise out of the same cultural issues with which you have struggled so valiantly lo these many years.
As we engage in these struggles together, struggles which are long-term because they seek to transform culture, let us offer each other the support of our friendship and prayers; and let us keep in mind the real reason why we are defending life and freedom: we know that these gifts from the Creator have been given not merely so that we can enjoy a prosperous, comfortable, and trouble-free life but rather so that we can attain to the freedom of virtuous living, and that holiness which leads to eternal life, that new and abundant life, which Christ won for us by his life, death, and resurrection.
Thank you so much for your time and attention this morning and thank you for witnessing to the Lord’s truth and love. May the Lord bless us in our commitment to life and freedom; may God bless our beloved Church; and may He bless these United States of America!