As Catholics and as Americans we have never before been compelled to choose one allegiance or the other.  Such was the wisdom of our nation’s founders and our Constitution, a treasured document that guarantees citizens of all religious faiths the right to contribute to our common life together.

When freedom is threatened, we need to talk.  We American bishops are compelled to summon our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be watchful because religious liberty is, wittingly or unwittingly, under attack.  Pope Benedict XVI has observed that religious liberty in our country is being weakened.  He called it the “most cherished of American freedoms.”

The threats have been multiplying.  The most recent is the HHS mandate for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.  If implemented, it would force religious institutions to facilitate and fund a program contrary to their own moral teaching and purport to define which religious institutions are “religious enough” to merit protection of their religious liberty.  This would indeed be an unjust law because it would force religious people and institutions to violate their religious beliefs and values.

Some seem to think that religious liberty only deals with our ability to worship freely.  But what about the contributions we Catholics have been making to the common good of all Americans now for centuries?  Will the government so blatantly intrude upon our rights that all Americans would suffer because they will be deprived of the many services the Catholic Church has provided over the years in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights and social services?

Who would ever have thought that our government would think about enacting an unjust law?  Catholics and other nations have confronted such a dilemma and many have suffered grievously because of their willingness to stand up for their rights.  This is not a matter of conscientious objection.  Conscientious objection would permit some relief for people who object to a just law for reasons of conscience.  But an unjust law is “no law at all.” It simply cannot be obeyed and hence one does not seek relief from it, but rather its appeal.  

In the face of this severe threat to our religious freedom, we American bishops are following the Holy Father’s lead and doing our best to corral “all the energies the Catholic community can muster” in defense of religious liberty.  There is an urgent need for all Catholics, clergy, religious and laity, in cooperation with Christians, Jews and people of other faiths, to impress upon our elected representatives how important it is that religious liberty be protected in a free society such as our own.  

In particular, we turn to those who are holding public office, reminding them that this should not be a partisan issue.  In fact it is the duty of all our government officials to protect and defend the fundamental liberties guaranteed by our nation’s Bill of Rights.  We implore leaders of our Catholic hospitals, clinics, universities, colleges, schools, adoption agencies, overseas development projects and social service agencies that provide assistance to the poor, the hungry, immigrants, and those faced with crisis pregnancies, to hold firm and to insist upon what belongs to all of us by rights as Catholics and Americans.

Consequently, we American bishops have proposed a special “Fortnight for Freedom” during which churches across this land would highlight the importance of defending our first freedom.  We suggest that the 14 days from June 21, the Vigil of the Feast of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More, to July 4, Independence Day, be dedicated to this “Fortnight for Freedom.” These 14 days are intended to be a focused time for all of us to grow in our understanding of what the church teaches about religious liberty, and a time of prayer and action dedicated to its protection.  Dioceses across the country will be observing the Fortnight in varied ways and this is truly intended to be a united effort.  As in all important matters, united we stand, divided we fall.  I am asking our priests to preach on this topic on one Sunday or both Sundays during the Fortnight.  Catholic churches across the nation will be asked to ring bells in honor of religious freedom at noon Eastern Time (9 a.m. here on the West Coast) on the Fourth of July.

Coincidentally, but providentially, on June 1 a film is being released in theaters nationwide which dramatizes the struggles of Catholics who fought for their religious freedom in the face of violent persecution of the church by the Mexican government during the Cristero War of the 1920s.  The movie is entitled “For Greater Glory.” It vividly depicts the difficult circumstances in which Catholics at that time lived and died for their faith.  It may be hard for us to imagine living in a country where the government has closed every single Catholic parish — no church bells, no Masses, no confessions and no church weddings permitted.  Proclaiming your faith in public would get you thrown in jail or worse — even killed.  But that is what happened to Catholics in Mexico 85 years ago.  Hopefully it’s an exaggerated reach to think something similar could happen in our own nation, but who ever would have thought that we would have to stand up in defense of religious liberty in these United States of America?

The movie was premiered in Mexico back on April 20.  The Mexican Conference of Bishops supported the movie.  When Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass on Mexican soil back in March, a symbol for the Cristeros, whose battle cry was “Viva Cristo Rey!”, was placed under a 75 foot statue of Christ the King.  Blessed Pope John Paul II canonized 25 Cristero martyrs in 2000 and 13 more were beatified by Pope Benedict in 2005.

More information will be distributed to pastors with recommendations for ways to observe the Fortnight at the local level.  These 14 days will give us a timely opportunity to work together to protect our freedom and to promote lasting peace and true justice at home and abroad.  I encourage you to stay in touch with The Catholic Sentinel both in print and online since I am not confident that our Fortnight for Freedom will receive significant coverage in the secular media.  How I would love to be wrong in my assessment!  I am hopeful that all our parishes and families will set aside a little time each day during the Fortnight for Freedom to pray for religious liberty.  I shall. I hope you do the same.  God bless.