For the next two weeks, the local church will observe a special period of prayer, study, catechesis and public action called a Fortnight for Freedom to emphasize the Christian and American heritage of liberty. The period from June 21 through July 4 will include holy hours of prayer and reflection as well as discussions about religious liberty across the diocese.
Last week’s prayer service will be followed by a second event on Thursday at 7 p.m. Christians of all denominations are encouraged to participate.
According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “We should be thankful for two things: our faith as disciples of Christ and our religious freedom as Americans. We should not have to sacrifice one of those for the other.”
Deacon Gary Brinkworth said allegiances to the church and to the country should be complementary, not contradictory.
“The history of the United States is that they [church and country] have been in fact, both nurtured and developed so that they come together to form an effective and free society,” he said. “The concern of the bishops is that is not going to continue unless we are allowed to exercise our religious liberty.”
But some assert the two allegiances did become contradictory on Feb. 15 when the Obama administration published a final ruling mandating contraception and sterilization coverage in almost all private health plans nationwide, with an “extremely” narrow exemption for some religious employers. In a March 21 notice of proposed rulemaking, the administration left the mandate unchanged while proposing an accommodation under which the mandate might be applied in various ways to the employees of religious organizations that are not exempt.
The mandate forces coverage of sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs and devices as well as contraception. It also forces employers to sponsor and subsidize coverage of sterilization.
Catholic charities, schools, universities or hospitals — which the bishops say are vital to the work of the church — are not exempt. The administration does not view them as religious employers and deserving of conscience protection because they do not serve primarily persons who share the same religious beliefs.
The Southern Baptist Convention, leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals, the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Evangelicals for Social Action and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities have all spoken out against the mandate, according to the bishops.
The bishops stated women’s health claims behind the mandate are doubtful at best because pregnancy is not a disease, “but the normal way that each of us came into the world.”
Brinkworth said others have spoken to him about the tendency to reduce religious freedom to a mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedoms of conscience.
“I hear it around the coffee pot at work that this issue we are ‘stirring up’ in the United States is our misplaced concern about the fact that the federal government is going to come and interfere with our ability to celebrate Mass. They ask, ‘Why don’t we just leave things alone and quit making such a big fuss about something that is nothing?’” the deacon said.
That opinion, he said, is held by some Catholics as well as non-Catholics. But, the issue is not about whether Catholics can pray the rosary or do the things faith calls them to do inside the church building.
“It’s about whether we can do what our faith calls us to do out there,” he said.
The Catholic faith pivots around being able to make contributions for social justice.
“This ruling from HHS is, in a way, starting to prevent us from being able to exercise our corporal works of mercy and if that happens, a lot of social service projects that Catholic organizations do all around the United States, hospitals for instance, will have to come to an end because we can’t continue to do that and meet these new obligations.”
According to the church, 33 percent of hospitals in the United States are Catholic hospitals.
“We have to be able to exercise our conscience in public,” Brinkworth said.
Quoting Thomas Jefferson, the deacon said, “‘No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the right of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority.’ Somebody in Washington didn’t read that.”
He said several other things that either are occurring or have occurred include state immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama that might place people of faith in awkward situations. That issue is a question of social justice or a work of mercy. Churches are prohibited from providing refuge to illegal immigrants.
“In 2009, the Connecticut legislature tried to mandate a restructuring of the Catholic parishes in that state to follow a model that allowed for public selection of ministers and staff,” he said. “The idea was that we weren’t sufficiently open and diverse.”
Finally, he said the HHS mandate is written so narrow that Mother Theresa would not qualify as a religious organization because she served people who were not Catholic.
“There are other examples, but all of them are examples of Christian organizations’ inability now to offer some counseling or some service they have been doing,” he said.
Brinkworth said religious liberty is not a right any government can give or take away, but it comes from God.
“Religious freedom is really about us allowing us to fully worship God and to do the things He calls us to do both inside this building and outside,” he said. “That’s what this issue is about today, to take our freedom and religious liberty and turn them into some kind of practical action.”
The Fortnight for Freedom began on the feast day of Saint Thomas More, a devout Catholic, husband and father. He was a lawyer by profession. His conscience was formed by principle and virtue at a time when both were routinely sacrificed for political expediency.
He was chosen to serve in Parliament and rose to become chancellor of England in the days of King Henry VIII. When called upon by the King to betray his principles and his conscience, however, More chose instead to put everything at risk, including his own life.
He said More could be compared to the conscientious private employer or employee who seeks to avoid doing or facilitating moral evil in the course of daily work while striving to live in accord with the demands of social justice.
Until now, Brinkworth said, it has been entirely possible under federal law for conscientious owners to conduct private businesses in accord with one’s conscience and the teachings of one’s faith. Until now, federal law has also accommodated businesses which are not church organizations but which are related to the mission of the church.