By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
JEFFERSON CITY — Free exercise of religion, guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, means much more than the right to attend worship services.
It also means the right of citizens to live out their religion every day, and that freedom is under threat, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori told nearly 600 Catholics Oct. 6 at the annual Missouri Catholic Conference Assembly.
“Our churches are open, our institutions continue to function, and on the surface, it doesn’t seem as though much has changed,” Archbishop Lori, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, said in his keynote address that launched a day of exploring issues and public policies in light of Catholic teaching.
“But we are here to look beneath the surface, to see clearly the threats, to analyze them, and then to resolve to address them as individuals and as a community of faith,” the archbishop said.
Archbishop Lori said that one of the threats was included in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s proposed mandate requiring all employers to cover such services as artificial contraception.
The exemption for religious employers that teach against such practices was applied narrowly “only if the church in question hires mainly its own, serves mainly its own, and exists almost exclusively to inculcate its own doctrine,” Archbishop Lori said.
“But the moment a church seeks to serve the common good or influence public opinion, then such a church and its activities are deemed ‘secular’ and we are told that we must play by the rules — and the rules often mean violating our own teaching, not in preaching, but in practice,” Archbishop Lori said.
Under that “extremely narrow definition,” Catholic Charities is not Catholic at all, but indistinguishable from any “secular” charity even though the work of Catholic Charities is profoundly Catholic, the archbishop said.
“Pope Benedict points out that the responsibility of individual Christians and the Christian community to love our neighbors as God has loved us is at the heart of the Gospel, and that from the very beginning, the church has responded to this Gospel mandate by means of organized charities — pooling resources and sharing them with the needy,” Archbishop Lori said.
“Affirming the human dignity of all, but most especially the vulnerable, and serving the common good of society — this is not a secular ‘add-on’ to church activity, but rather flows from our life of faith and worship,” he said.
“This is expressed in person-to-person charity, in our educational and charitable institutions, and in our advocacy in the public square for a just and peaceful society, an advocacy that is carried on not from a perspective of blind faith, but rather from a perspective of reason enlightened by faith,” he said.
Under the narrow definition, Catholic institutions such as Catholic Charities, hospitals and universities would be obliged under the government mandate to provide insurance coverage to their employees for “surgical procedures and pharmaceuticals judged to be immoral,” Archbishop Lori said.
“If a religious organization hires people of other faiths, if it seeks to serve people of all faiths or no faith at all, and if it engages in education, social services and charity, then according to the HHS rule, it is not religious enough to be exempt,” he said.
“The (Obama) Administration is drawing lines where we, the sponsors of religious works, don’t draw lines ourselves,” he said.
“The government’s attempt to tell the church which of our institutions seem religious to the state is profoundly offensive and entangles the government in the internal life of religious institutions,” Archbishop Lori said.
But even if the HHS mandate were withdrawn or overruled in court or by legislation, “the struggle to preserve religious liberty would not be finished,” the archbishop said.
“Major Catholic international relief agencies still face discrimination in competing for contracts because they refuse to violate Catholic teaching,” he said.
“Catholic Charities in various parts of the country are still forced to close down their adoption services because they will not place children with same-sex couples and individuals,” he said.
“A Vermont innkeeper was forced to pay $30,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a lesbian couple who wanted to hold their wedding reception at the inn. The owners of the inn believe marriage is reserved for one man and one woman, and have been forced to turn away all wedding receptions,” Archbishop Lori said.
“In secular universities and colleges, religious groups are being de-legitimized and pushed off campus,” he said. “And all of us are familiar with relentless attempts to remove all references to religion on public lands.
“Instead of being a land that is tolerant of religious faith,” Archbishop Lori said, “we are becoming quite intolerant.”
Archbishop Lori said Catholics must not only remain vigilant, but must also exercise their faith full time, and seek to deepen their understanding and knowledge of their faith as the Year of Faith proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI opens on Oct. 11.
“At the end of the day, we will be judged by our fidelity to our responsibilities and how we sustain that fidelity,” he said.
“Our responsibilities call us to rally for religious freedom in the context of the national common good and as a beacon of hope for people suffering religious persecution in various parts of the world,” Archbishop Lori said.
“We are called to engage our fellow citizens and government leaders robustly but do so in civility, respect and love,” he said.
“This is the pattern given to us by the saints. This is the pattern given us by our early Christian brothers and sisters,” he said.
“This is our path now, as we sustain our national promise of freedom and equality for succeeding generations,” Archbishop Lori said.
“I urge you to vote in the critical election next month and to keep alive the civil, necessary public debate surrounding issues of importance, including those of religious liberty, in the days and weeks leading up to Nov. 6,” he said.
“And I urge you to continue taking the faith that inspires you to worship on Sunday out into the public the other six days of the week,” he said.
“That is truly living your faith, something we are each called to do by our Baptism and our discipleship,” Archbishop Lori said.