The Catholic Bishops of the United States have asked us to spend a couple of weeks praying for a change of governmental policies so that Catholic health care, social services, and educational institutions will continue to be free to manage themselves according to the Catholic faith without government interference.
The right to religious freedom has been an ongoing struggle since the beginning of the Church. The Roman government required subjects to offer sacrifice to Roman gods as a civic duty, and Christians suffered and died for the right to refuse until the Church was granted freedom under the Emperor Constantine. European kings tried to establish the right to appoint bishops and popes in order to gain control over the Church, and the Church’s calendar celebrates many who worked and died for the Church’s freedom to govern her own affairs. Out of those struggles, the right to the Church’s freedom in England was granted in the Magna Carta, the first of the freedoms enumerated there: “The Church in England shall be forever free.” Sadly, that freedom was lost in the English Reformation when King and Parliament not only took power to appoint and remove bishops, but also to establish religious doctrine. The Mass was eliminated, religious orders were abolished, opponents were killed, and the Body of Christ was divided – division that remains to this day. The rights of the Catholic Church and of Catholics to practice their faith in England were not restored for hundreds of years.
Thankfully, the authors of the US Constitution learned from the English experience. The heritage of the Magna Carta was established in the United States even before freedom of religion was restored in England. Like the Magna Carta, the Constitution establishes freedom of religion as our first freedom. The First Amendment to the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” It establishes the right of religious groups to run their own affairs and also for individuals to practice their faith, free of government interference. The Catholic bishops have asked us to pray that the rights of all will be respected, including Catholics and the Catholic Church.
It has been interesting to read a number of opinions by people who welcome the effort of the federal Department of Health and Human Services to limit the right of Catholic institutions to govern themselves according to the Catholic faith. Some oppose the Church’s doctrine on the sacraments of marriage, ordination, and the sanctity of life, and they seem to welcome the government as an ally in changing the Church’s doctrine and practice in these areas. Even though I may have my own list of hoped for church reforms, I do not see any possible good outcome of the attempt by the government to force changes in the Church’s faith and practice. If the government today may seem to some to be an ally in forcing the Church to adopt changes popular with one group, doesn’t that establish the precedent that in the future the government can force the Church to do what the group opposes? What kind of Church would it be if it must change and change again depending on which government is in power? It might be some kind of church, but it wouldn’t be the Catholic Church.
The Catholic bishops in the United States have asked us to pray for continued respect for our freedom of religion. The Church asks us to pray at every Mass for our government authorities. I believe we can do both.
Fr. Ernie Davis is Administrator of St. Therese Little Flower Parish in Kansas City.