Catholics must fight against forces seeking to remove the influence of religion from American culture, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore told over 1,000 Catholics at a Mass beginning a 14-day campaign for religious freedom.
“In differing ways, both the Church’s teaching and our nation’s founding documents acknowledge that the Creator has endowed individuals with freedom of conscience,” said Archbishop Lori.
“Such freedom goes to the heart of the dignity of the human person.”
The archbishop delivered the opening homily for the Fortnight for Freedom, the two-week period leading up to the Fourth of July that the bishops have dedicated as a time for prayer, education and advocacy for religious liberty.
The June 21 Mass took place at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption in Baltimore, the nation’s first Catholic cathedral.
Archbishop Lori, who leads the U.S. bishops’ religious freedom committee, was met with standing applause when he entered the overflowing cathedral, as well as after the homily and at the conclusion of Mass.
In his homily, he observed that the date chosen to kick off the fortnight was the eve of the feast day of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, 16th century English martyrs who were beheaded because they would not comply with a law that made King Henry VIII the head of the Church and broke communion with the Pope.
He explained that these two saints symbolize the “two aspects of religious freedom” that the Fortnight for Freedom is striving to protect and foster.
An accomplished lawyer who served as the Chancellor of England, St. Thomas More was willing to accept martyrdom courageously rather than “to betray his principles and his conscience.”
Archbishop Lori said that More represents the conscientious private employers and employees who simply seek to “go about their daily work in accord with their faith” and the demands of social justice, while avoiding “doing or facilitating moral evil in course of daily work.”
While perhaps less well-know, St. John Fisher also witnessed courageously as the Bishop of Rochester in Kent, he added.
Fisher helped renew the Church from within while opposing external state interference. After his martyrdom, royal forces seized churches, monasteries and learning centers, either destroying them or forcing them to break ties with the Catholic Church.
The archbishop explained that St. John Fisher symbolizes for us the “struggle to maintain religious freedom for church institutions and ministries such as our schools and charities.”
While we are not met with the “dire brutality” that these two saints faced, the U.S. Church today is in “perilous waters,” he said.
He pointed to a federal mandate that will require employers to offer health insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. While the mandate includes a religious exemption, it applies only to non-profit organizations that exist to inculcate religious values and that primarily serve and employ members of their own faiths.
Religious organizations such as Catholic hospitals, inner-city schools and charitable agencies do not qualify for the exemption because they are committed to serving all in need, regardless of their faith.
Thus, the Church is only “religious enough” for a religious exemption if it “confines itself to the sacristy,” but not if it attempts to reach out “by hiring those of other faiths and by serving the common good,” Archbishop Lori observed.
He warned that this very narrow definition of church and religion that is embedded in the mandate “is likely to spread throughout federal law” if not swiftly removed.
With the mandate scheduled to go into effect on August 1, private employers will be forced to “violate their consciences” in less than six weeks, he said.
Recalling how religious freedom – in both private worship and public life – drew many people to America from its very beginning as a nation, the archbishop called on the faithful to “defend the Church’s freedom to fulfill her mission” through proclaiming the Gospel and manifesting God’s love in organized works of education and charity.
He stressed the need to defend the religious freedom of both individuals and church institutions, which find both their identity and their mission in firmly-held religious convictions. It is important to protect both, because the two are “inseparably linked,” and a threat to one poses a risk to the other as well, he said.
Even if the mandate is overturned, Archbishop Lori cautioned, Catholics must still fight forces of secularism that are seeking to prevent religious faith from having any impact on culture.
He urged the faithful to act courageously “throughout this Fortnight and beyond,” to defend freedom and bear witness to the moral values and truths that serve as the foundation for “a society that is just, peaceful and charitable.”