Our First Liberty



In the United States and indeed in many parts of the world our first and most cherished liberty, that is, religious liberty, is under attack.  Evidence is plentiful. 

The recent HHS mandate is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  This federal mandate will require all employers, including those Catholic employers which the government does not deem “religious enough,” to provide insurance plans for employees that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.  Admittedly, even among Catholics the topic of contraception is controversial.  Leaving the important pastoral challenge of making a more compelling case for the Church’s teaching on contraception for another moment, let me say that our concern with this mandate is not primarily about contraception.

Archbishop William Lori sums up the situation saying, “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.”  This is about religious liberty and the freedom of conscience.

Other examples of this growing assault on religious liberty in the United States can be cited:

  • Catholic foster care and adoption services in several dioceses have been forced to close.  Why?  Their licenses were revoked because as Catholic charitable agencies, faithful to their religious identity, they refused to place children with same-sex or unmarried cohabiting couples.
  • The USCCB Migration and Refugee Services, which for years has provided excellent services to victims of human trafficking has now been excluded from providing humanitarian services through a government contract.  Why?   Because MRS does not provide abortion and contraceptive services, services which are clearly in violation of our Catholic teaching. The terms of the contract were changed to exclude this Catholic agency, even though no other agency has a comparable record of competence to care for these vulnerable individuals and families.
  • Several states have recently passed immigration laws forbidding what the government calls “harboring” undocumented immigrants, and what the Church recognizes as a duty of Christian charity to provide pastoral care of those same immigrants.  The law makes it a crime for the Church to offer pastoral services to certain persons.

These are but a sample; other indicators abound.

In a powerful pastoral statement, entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty”, the USSCB Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty states, “We need, therefore, to speak frankly with each other when our freedoms are threatened.  Now is such a time.  As Catholic bishops and American citizens, we address an urgent summons to our fellow Catholics and fellow Americans to be on guard, for religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad.”

To be sure, religious liberty is not merely about our freedom to attend Mass on Sunday or to pray without hindrance in our homes.  Even in Communist China and the former Soviet Union participation in (government approved) religious services was permitted.  That does not constitute religious liberty.  The test of true religious liberty is whether we are free to make our own contribution to the common good of all Americans.  It is about whether we can do what our faith calls us to do freely and without government interference or having to compromise our faith.

Our religious liberty is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.  It is the first liberty.  This freedom guarantees that we cannot and will not be forced by the government to make a choice between being an American and being a Catholic.  In truth, it is not a Catholic issue, nor a Protestant, Jewish or Muslim issue.  It is an American issue.

The serious concern generated by these assaults on religious liberty is raising an urgent cry for justice.  In his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King cited St. Augustine who wrote that “an unjust law is no law at all.”  King asked, “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust?  A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.  An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.  To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”  How significant that a Baptist preacher and an American civil rights hero would cite Catholic tradition in making a defense for his actions in the face of injustice!

If we are facing the prospect of unjust laws today, then we Catholics, in solidarity with our fellow citizens must have the courage, like Dr. King, to resist them.  It is not even a matter of conscientious objection to a just law.  An unjust law is no law at all.  We cannot obey it.  We must seek its repeal. 

At this crucial time what we need is an engaged, well-formed and articulate Catholic laity with the conviction and courage necessary to counter the dominant culture of secularism that wishes to exclude the Church’s participation in the public debate about the future of American society.

For more information and resources and to follow these developments closely visit our archdiocesan website at www.archokc.org and click on the USCCB link.