We gather on the eve of our country’s Independence Day, approaching the end of the Fortnight for Freedom. In this two week period people in dioceses throughout our nation have offered prayers, held informative workshops, and gathered in peaceful rallies to celebrate the Freedom that flows from our dignity as children of God. This freedom is unique in history. It is the hallmark of the United States of America.
In a more particular way we have reflected these days on the cherished value of Religious Liberty. This is the freedom to gather and worship – as we do this evening. Religious freedom means more. It is the determination to act on the beliefs that we profess each Sunday; beliefs that flow from the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
It is hard to imagine the history of Catholicism in the United States apart from this grace of religious freedom. It is difficult to imagine any progress of the people and culture in the United States apart from the apostolic actions of the Church; actions which, from the very founding of our country, have aided an inestimable number of people in every community in America. This work of Catholic believers continues in education, health care, emergency assistance, counseling, housing, nursing for the elderly, adoption, chaplaincy in the military, in the prisons, on secular campuses and hospitals; yes in countless works for others. We serve people, not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.
What motivates this constant work of faith that has built our nation and which supports countless people of every color and creed and age? It is our Catholic belief expressed in concrete action. This is possible because we have always enjoyed the freedom to live according to our conscientious beliefs. This inalienable and fundamental right is established, not by man, but by God as constitutive of the human person with free will. And the goodness of our country and the wisdom of the founders has always seen fit to protect and guarantee this liberty in law. The freedom of Religion means also the freedom to do good and not to violate our conscience.
It just so happens that on July 3 the Church marks the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle. St. Thomas was one of the twelve chosen by Jesus. In accord with the Gospel we just heard he is sometimes given the unfortunate title “Doubting Thomas.” Thomas, while he is weak like us and wanting to see the risen Lord, makes a great profession of faith, “My Lord and my God.” So strong is Thomas’ faith – strengthened by Jesus – that according to the first century tradition, Thomas goes on to be a great missionary to India – and eventually a martyr for the faith. He professes Christ. He lives what he professes. He dies for his beliefs.
This is the freedom which Jesus Christ gives: freedom to spend our lives in service; freedom to give away our life rather than cling to what is contrary to the truth Jesus reveals. Our worship here today – as beautiful as it is – does not and must not end in the pews or within these walls. The grace of the Holy Mass must take root deep in our heart. It must show itself in charity: “What you do for the least of my brothers and sisters; what you neglect to do for these least ones: this you do – or fail to do – unto me.” This is God’s command and it surpasses even the best human law.
In the last 5 months, the United States bishops and the Catholic faithful of our country have been challenged about the core beliefs that are meant to govern our life. Let’s be clear, no one has told us to stop worshipping God. Nonetheless very soon – August 1, 2012 – less than a month from now – a plan will be begin to be realized – it seems clearer now than ever – that will eventually impose on certain of our Religious institutions – and also on each individual – a requirement to fund insurance coverage which is contrary to the moral law.
Only institutions that by a very narrow definition are “Catholic” might be exempt from this mandate. The HHS department’s current definition of a Catholic religious institution is one that employs mostly Catholics and serves mostly Catholics. But our Catholic hospitals, our Catholic Universities, Catholic Charities have never limited their care of others to “mostly Catholics.” It seems clear that, under the HHS mandate, none of these institutions would qualify for the Religious exemption so narrowly defined. They would be forced to fund insurance practices which are contrary to the moral law.
Over the last months the U.S. bishops have opposed the mandate of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – issued in February, and not altered or rescinded or changed in any way so far – which would require that sterilizations, contraceptives, as well as abortion-inducing contraceptives – to be paid for by employers and ultimately by the citizenry, regardless of whether the use of these interventions were contrary to conscience. Sterilizations and contraceptives are not basic health care. They are not good, necessary, preventive medicine which promotes sound health. Rather, for us to participate and pay for such procedures brings us into direct cooperation with actions rightly taught by the Church as evil.
This is the moral dilemma of today. Some have understandably wondered: if Government demands that we provide these interventions to others who chose them, what might government require at a future time? Isn’t publicly funded elective abortion the next logical step? Many reasonable people have objected to these recent actions of the Government which seem to re-define the parameters of our moral conscience. Good government welcomes the contribution of people of faith and must not require people to act in such a way as to compromise their faith and core beliefs.
The dilemma many of our Catholic institutions face is real and may come quickly and decisively. Follow these mandates or be fined; pay these premiums or go out of business. Can we violate our consciences and the very meaning and purpose that motivate our daily work by participating in this way? If we do not participate, will our Catholic hospitals and our Catholic universities close? How will the work of Catholic Charities continue if we are asked to make this ultimate choice which so directly compromises our principles? The choice is difficult not only for Catholic institutions, but for employers and employees who will be expected to make the same choices.
So far these initiatives have been taken by the Executive Branch of government. Surely the Legislative and Judicial Branches will have to act, but how much damage will be done if these mandates are not rescinded?
Today we come together at a national holiday of freedom. How grateful we are for our Country and the heritage of freedom that has defined it thus far. We come to pray. And we must be determined to speak and act peaceably to secure in law what ought never to be changed or endangered: the liberties which make us the greatest country in history and which best support our God-given freedom. We cannot betray our consciences. We cannot participate in what is destructive even when the cost is great. Lord guide us; fortify us in peaceful but firm resolve; unite us today for the sake of the considerable good work that must continue. Help us to be instruments of peace and apostles for freedom.
The Fortnight of Freedom began with the feast days of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, two English martyrs, a layman and a bishop, who would not violate their conscience to do the king’s bidding. Today we implore their intercession and also that of St. Thomas the Apostle, who not only professed his belief but became a powerful missionary in its service and died in fidelity to Christ. We too wish to live our faith with integrity, not just within the walls of the church building, but in the marketplace and the crossroads, where there remains so much to do to bring education, health care, and every kind of help to God’s people.
May our Blessed Mother, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, watch over us, keep us under the safety of her mantle and lead us on a safe path. I have asked you to pray to St. Michael for an interior renewal and that we may be fortified for what lies ahead. Keep praying that we will as bishops, clergy and religious, and lay faithful will persevere, united in this challenge.
Almighty and powerful God, bless and preserve our country. Guide us with that constant light which gives us hope. Safeguard the values and principles which define us. Lord, Bless America. Bless every one of her officials and leaders. Bless us as faithful citizens. Amen.