From June 24 through July 4 the Catholic people of the United States and their many friends will be observing a “Fortnight For Freedom.”  As I mentioned in an earlier column, these two weeks will be a time for all of us to understand better our church teaching about religious liberty and also to pray and advocate for the protection of this most fundamental right.

Almost immediately after the Fortnight was announced, some thought that possibly we could be making too much of this “religious freedom” issue.  Those who have had their freedom threatened in the past would certainly not agree.  After all, religious liberty is a cornerstone of our democracy.  It is the very first liberty granted to us by God and protected in the First Amendment of our nation’s Constitution.  It has never before been restricted to what goes on within our churches and homes.  But the recent HHS Mandate seems to do precisely that.  It expects the church to violate its own teachings outside the church.  It is the very same first amendment which protects freedom of the press.  No one would stand for the State telling newspapers and news programs what to write or whom to interview.

As I wrote to you late last month, it was a series of events that led to the decision to call for this fourteen-day of prayer, education and action in support of religious freedom.  The HHS mandate was the last straw in a series of apparent efforts by the government to mute the Catholic voice and debilitate our mission.  State immigration laws, efforts to alter the structure and governance of the church according to a congregational model, Catholic foster care and adoption services, discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services, witness the decision to terminate services provided by the church to victims of human trafficking, all these and others have led us to the this moment when we must simply state loudly and clearly, “All this must stop.”  Our freedom of religion is much too precious to be surrendered without a significant rebuttal.

It would be foolish for us to expect the secular media to defend our rights to religious freedom, even though they certainly would protect their own.  It has been a custom in recent years to ignore or devalue regularly the significant contributions the Catholic Church has made for the well-being of our nation.  I have asked all our priests and deacons to preach about this matter on either Sunday or both Sundays during the Fortnight, June 24 and July 1.  I have also requested that ecumenical services on behalf of religious liberty be hosted in every vicariate.  There will be a Holy Hour at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Portland on Thursday evening, June 28.  I am asking all the Catholic organizations of the archdiocese to be represented at that Holy Hour, especially the Knights of Columbus, the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women, the Young Ladies Institute and the Catholic Daughters of America.  With bishops across the country, I have asked that all the bells of churches be rung at 9:00 a.m. on the Fourth of July, PDT, precisely the same hour when bells will be rung across this nation to proclaim and celebrate the freedom we enjoy and to ask God’s favor to protect it now and in the future.

The public expression of concern about religious freedom is nothing new in the history of our nation.  Our first President, George Washington, wrote back in 1789, “If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution, framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it.”  In 1809 Thomas Jefferson wrote, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.”  

The Fortnight begins on the Vigil of the feasts of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher.  Thomas More was an English Catholic lawyer who served as Lord Chancellor and a close advisor to King Henry VIII.  More opposed the King’s separation from the Catholic Church and his naming himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England.  Because More refused to take the oath required by law that disparaged papal power, he was tried for treason, convicted on perjured testimony and beheaded.  He is the patron saint of religious freedom.  St. John Fisher was an English Catholic Cardinal, executed by order of King Henry VIII, for refusing to accept the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England and for upholding the Catholic Church’s Doctrine of the Papal Primacy.

Both Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have spoken out about the importance of religious liberty.  John Paul, in an address to the Vatican diplomatic corps back in 1996, stated “The most fundamental human freedom (is) that of practicing one’s faith openly, which for human beings is their reason for living.”  And Pope Benedict, in speaking to the same group in 2011 stated, “(Religious freedom) is indeed the first of human rights, not only because historically it was the first to be recognized but also because it touches the constitutive dimension of man, his relation with his Creator.”

Some people still wonder why the HHS Mandate to cover contraceptives, including abortion-causing drugs and sterilization, violates religious liberty.  In testimony before Congress, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said, “This is not a matter of whether contraception may be prohibited by the government.  This is not even a matter of whether contraception may be supported by the government.  Instead, it is a matter of whether religious people and institutions may be forced by the government to provide coverage for contraception or sterilization, even if that violates their religious beliefs.”

It is important to remember that this issue about which we have grave concern is not about health coverage for the unemployed, or for those who must rely on the government for coverage (for example, by Medicaid).  It is about people who are employed by the Catholic Church and its various ministries, which are usually generous in the health benefits provided to employees.  Those working for the church know they are working for a community with its own guiding mission and values.  Many work for the church precisely for that reason.  In his testimony before Congress, Archbishop Lori observed that demanding such coverage would be like coming to a kosher deli and demanding to be served a ham sandwich!

Many contend that the vast majority of Catholics practice artificial birth control.  Hence church teaching is out-of-step with reality.  It depends on how one views reality.  If reality reflects the prevailing moral behavior, it is quite clear that chastity is not a realistic virtue.  But it is a Christian virtue, an ideal towards which we all strive, the same as patience, generosity and forgiveness.  The issue here is not whether individuals practice artificial birth control.  Even when church teaching is unpopular, the state simply cannot force people of faith to violate church teachings in church institutions.

The last concern is that during an election year the Catholic Church is practicing partisanship.  That is simply not true.  This is a bipartisan issue that affects all Americans.  In fact, legislation to try and correct this problem has enjoyed bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.  In our Fortnight For Freedom, Catholics and their friends are asking all citizens, whatever their partisan preference may be, to air their views to all their elected representatives and to stand up together for religious freedom and the First Amendment.