Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Sr. Krista von Borstel attends rally for religious freedom in Portland in 2012.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
Sr. Krista von Borstel attends rally for religious freedom in Portland in 2012.
Catholic leaders in Oregon fear individual rights have multiplied at the expense of the common good.

Bishop Liam Cary of the Diocese of Baker says the problem is one consequence of blocking religion from the common sphere. When people ignore the wisdom of ancient faith and instead fight for rights to contraception, abortion, gay marriage and even marijuana, they forget the damage to society and order overall, especially youth, Bishop Cary explains.    

“The children are left out of the calculation in all these things,” he says. “Why don’t we think of the responsibility we have for them?”

Religion, he says, looks at the big picture.

But persecution of Christians has surged in the 21st century — and in different ways. In the Middle East and parts of Asia, followers of Jesus are being driven out and even murdered. In Europe, rising secularism has almost sealed Christianity off from public life. In the United States, new laws in health care and social life are pressuring some employers and business owners to violate their consciences.

“Our religious liberty is slipping away with increasing rapidity,” Bishop Cary says. He calls the past few decades “a race towards intolerance.”

Before about 1960, religious liberty was sacrosanct. Then came a balance of rights and religious freedom. Now, he says, religious liberty is seen as an obstacle to individual rights.

The shock is worsened, he adds, because America was founded on religious tolerance. People left Europe because they did not want their consciences constrained.  

Bishop Cary calls the mandates of the Affordable Care Act an “unprecedented move to force the conscience.” The law requires that most health plans cover the cost of contraception, sterilization and some drugs that can induce abortion.

The church has always favored greater access to health care and has offered free care to the poor for centuries. But now, the bishop says, health care has become a forum in which the government is limiting churches to what happens in the space of worship.

“What happens outside the church is being defined by parameters defined by the government,” Bishop Cary says, noting Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration that charitable work is as integral to the church’s identity as word and sacrament.  

In Oregon, the Catholic Church often is criticized for trying to force its ideas on others. Bishop Cary says that teaching is not coercion and that the compulsion actually is moving in the opposite direction.

“The forcing of conscience is when the government comes into the life of the church telling it what it can and cannot do,” he explains.
For example, Catholic schools and churches will face violations of conscience if they are forced by law to accommodate gay marriage, Bishop Cary says.

To those who argue that those who support abortion and gay marriage are only following their consciences, the bishop says that conscience must be informed by truth. To Catholics, he says “Have confidence in the content of the faith.”  

Bishop Cary offers encouragement to Catholics with a bit of history. Just after the French Revolution, he says, the church in Europe was disabled. But the 19th century saw a great outpouring of worldwide evangelization.

Roger Martin, a longtime lobbyist for Oregon Catholics at the state legislature, says the church is constantly fighting off efforts to weaken its position. During the last session, the church defeated a proposal that would have levied taxes on churches and private schools as a way to fund public schools. A separate revenue measure would have taxed charitable institutions. Catholic hospitals and schools in Oregon face frequent attempted mandates.   

“There are people in elected office who think the church is fair game,” Martin says.  

Pope Francis last month told a crowd that worldwide persecution of Christians is worse than it was in the first centuries of the church. He called religious freedom a key part of human dignity that extends beyond prayer and time in the pew.    

“Religious liberty is not only that of thought or private worship,” the pope said “It is freedom to live according to ethical principles consequent upon the truth found, be it privately or publicly.”

Churches are not the only groups pointing out the problem. The leader of a bipartisan federal commission on religious freedom sounded an alarm this spring while speaking at a conference in Washington, D.C.  

“There is no doubt that religious freedom faces extraordinary and novel challenges that grow out of increasing and aggressive secularism, coupled with fundamental redefinitions of core social institutions,” said Katrina Lantos Swett.

Religious persons, like other citizens, are called to active civic engagement, she explained, “and the fact that their views may be informed by their deeply held convictions should in no way disqualify them.”