As we embark on the annual Fortnight for Freedom, an initiative of the U.S. Bishops that takes place from June 21-July 4, we observe a focused period of prayer, education, and action to address the many current and grave challenges to our religious liberty in our midst. This year’s theme is “Freedom to bear witness”.
The Fortnight for Freedom began in 2012 as a prayerful response to the government’s HHS mandate—forcing employers to cover contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs in their health plans. Prior to this imposition, the consciences of business owners, religious employers, and other people of upright conscience who objected to having such death-dealing coverage in their health plans, were protected by law. But now, over these recent years, with a so-called “religious exemption” that wouldn’t even allow Jesus Himself to serve those in need, 105 lawsuits with 333 plaintiffs have been filed in attempts to preserve and protect the fundamental right to live and operate businesses, educational institutions, and charitable agencies according to deeply held religious beliefs and conviction of conscience.
The HHS mandate is not the only threat to our religious freedom. Defending marriage as the union of one man and one woman is increasingly causing persecution for those who uphold God’s truth about marriage. Florists, photographers, bakers, and event facility owners are being driven out of business because their consciences will not permit them to “endorse”, or be a party to, so-called same-sex weddings. A number of Catholic Charities agencies across the country have had to cease adoption services for not placing children in the homes of same-sex couples.
And there are more. The federal government has discriminated against Catholic humanitarian services by disqualifying them from government grants and contracts, even though Catholic services have always had stellar success in these efforts (for example, in serving victims of human trafficking), because they refuse to provide or refer for contraception and abortion. Many states have enacted immigration laws that criminalize certain acts of Christian charity and pastoral care for immigrants. Religious liberty is more than freedom to worship. It includes our ability to serve all people and perform the works of mercy without having to compromise our faith.
Threats to religious freedom are real and growing. But just how aware is the average person, or even the average Catholic, of this reality? Have we become apathetic to what is happening all around us? Our fundamental right to religious freedom is something that is easy to take for granted. Like the right to life, the right to religious liberty is antecedent to its recognition, and at the same time, these inherent rights are reaffirmed in that they were written into the U.S. Constitution at its very founding. Surely this would never be eroded! Generations of people who have grown up in the midst of a Judeo-Christian culture have long held the rational position that the majority of people understood right from wrong, and that most people exhibit a common decency and a willingness to help their neighbor. But how things have changed! What seemed impossible and unthinkable to our not-so-distant ancestors, has become for many “just the way it is” today. Consciences have become dulled to the reality that good and evil exist, and that there is such a thing as objective truth.
Can we reclaim our nation’s faith and restore our collective conscience? Yes, we can. But only with God’s grace and help. The Fortnight for Freedom gives us a special opportunity to beseech God’s mercy and return to His loving embrace. Like the widow in the Gospel of Luke (Lk. 18:1-8), who relentlessly sought justice and finally received it thanks to her persistence, we too must persevere. But we must also pay heed to how Jesus concludes this parable, “Will not God then secure the rights of His chosen ones who call out to Him day and night? Will He be slow to answer them? I tell you, He will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”
Helping to form and inform darkened consciences is no easy task, and surely Divine Intervention is necessary. St. John Paul II describes the role of conscience in a way that if heeded, would revolutionize the way many understand reality and would lead us on the road to grow in virtue and holiness. Judgments of conscience are not arbitrary. In Veritatis Splendor (n. 58) he notes, “Moral conscience does not close man within an insurmountable and impenetrable solitude, but opens him to the call, to the voice of God. In this, and not in anything else, lies the entire mystery and the dignity of the moral conscience: in being the place, the sacred place where God speaks to man.”
Herein we discover the secret to changing hearts and awakening right conscience: we must come to know and love God. Without a relationship with God who loves us infinitely, without knowing His commands and working to put them into practice, we flounder and fail. When we lose sight of God, we lose sight of who we are. And we wonder when things fall apart? But when we love God and seek to do His will and follow the path of righteousness, everything changes, and no matter what obstacles we face and sins we have to overcome, we know that we can walk in freedom and in truth.
St. John Paul understood clearly this essential link between freedom and truth. He said, “The maturity and responsibility of [the individual in making judgments of conscience] are not measured by the liberation of the conscience from objective truth, in favor of an alleged autonomy in personal decisions, but, on the contrary, by an insistent search for truth and by allowing oneself to be guided by that truth in one’s actions” (VS, n. 62).
St. Thomas More, the great English statesman and martyr, understood this well. He said, “I cannot but trust in God’s merciful goodness. His grace has strengthened me until now and made me content to lose goods, land, and life as well, rather than to swear against my conscience.” And before he was put to death in 1535, St. Thomas proclaimed, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
Catholic University of America president John Garvey summarized eloquently what is needed to restore the culture. He said, “Saving religious liberty means reminding people that they should love God. St. Thomas More taught us that we need religious liberty. More importantly, he taught us that loving God is worth dying for. If that is so, then the freedom to love God is worth the fight.”
God has given us the gifts of freedom, truth, and right conscience. We must face the sobering thought, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” May we persevere in seeking the Truth and have the courage to bear witness to our faith, always.
To learn more about the Fortnight for Freedom and how you can take part, visit the Bishops’ website at www.fortnight4freedom.org.