NOVEMBER 23, 2011 | The Long Island Catholic VOL. 50, NO. 29 | BISHOP WILLIAM MURPHY
When the pilgrims landed on the shores of the new continent, they fled the old continent of Europe which had recently been engulfed in what would be called the Thirty Years War which came to a bloody close only in 1648. During those years every Christian denomination, Catholic, Reformed, Calvinist, Lutheran, was subject to discrimination depending on the religious persuasion and religious zealotry of the individual king or prince. The pilgrims came here basically to escape that turmoil and be able to practice their reformed piety in freedom. Sadly they did not extend that same freedom to Christians of other persuasions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony anymore than did other groups who came to this land seeking the same religious freedom.
Yet one of the tenets of our nation was born in these settlements of devout Christians who wanted above all to worship God free of the restrictive laws of the lands from which they came. Our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, speak with great eloquence of our belief in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and of the inherent dignity of every human being to pursue those goals in a society of free men and women. With the First Amendment, the very goal the pilgrims and other Christians sought on these shores was guaranteed: freedom to practice one’s religious faith individually or communally, privately and publicly without interference from government which would not embroil itself in the internal life of the religious group and would not favor any religious persuasion over another.
On November 11, I was privileged to preach the homily at the Investiture Mass for the Order of Malta in St. Patrick Cathedral. Speaking of their commitment to defend the faith, I said:
“We bishops need you. We count on you. Recently the President of the USCCB established a new ad hoc Committee on Religious Freedom. He appointed Bishop Lori of Bridgeport to chair it. As a former Commissioner on the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, I can affirm what you already know: religious freedom is under attack across the globe. What is more immediately frightening is the extent to which it is under siege in direct and indirect ways in our own country today. There is evidence in every branch of government, judicial, legislative and administrative, and on every level of governance, local, state and national, that strong and well organized forces are bent on curtailing the expression of religious faith in the public domain and seeking to limit religious practice to the private world of the individual believer. Our conference of bishops is alert to this. We will address these issues with a clear and coherent voice, seeking no privilege for the Church, but insisting on the public practice of religious worship and practice not just for individuals but for institutions of all legitimate religious persuasions. The right to the exercise of religious belief and expression in public and private by individuals and institutions is not guaranteed just by our Constitution and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is even more, much more, a fundamental right given by God that in a profound sense is the ultimate guarantor of all other human rights. As our Holy Father, Pope Benedict says so often, freedom of religion and the freedom to worship God ultimately make possible all other human rights.
While we bishops pledge to fulfill our task, we cannot do it without the strong support and the vigorous action of you, the faithful. Defense of the Church means defense of the faith.This necessarily includes in it, for the sake of the life of the faith, defense of the Holy Father, defense of the bishop and of the priests who serve in our parishes.”
When Bishop Lori spoke to the assembled bishops, he cited Pope Gregory the Great who said that we bishops are called to be “watchmen, vigilant heralds of the Word and overseers of the household of God.” In that spirit do we bishops undertake this new challenge that elements in our society today are making to the Church and to all men and women who believe in God. The bishop called for three things we must do together. First we need to bring our teaching into focus so that we understand clearly what the Lord enjoins on us as we preach His message for all humankind. That means for us in this issue to present “a critical and accurate understanding of how the vision of our Founding Fathers and the vision of the Church’s teaching on religious liberty fit together.” This leads to recognition that “religious liberty pertains to the whole person — it is not simply the freedom to believe and to worship but to shape our very lives around those beliefs and that worship.”
Then we must attend to what we see. In our case we offer a Church that contributes so much to the wider society that we are overall the largest non-governmental actor providing care and services to the sick, the poor, youth and elderly in all situations and circumstances. Yet around us is a society growing in its dismissal of persons of religious faith and desirous of marginalizing our participation in activities that serve the common good.
Finally we must find the ways to respond to what we see. Bishop Lori echoes the words I offered to the Order of Malta. We have a critical role to play and we must fulfill it together. We welcome partnership of other Christian bodies and other faith traditions. We invite men and women of good will, who do not share faith in God, to recognize that what motivates us is love of God expressed through love of neighbor, a love they can share through activities that can unite us for the common good.
Above all we, members of this Catholic community of communion, can and must be as one so that, as Bishop Lori said, we become “re-energized and re-focused to bring the message and mission to every corner of our land. Together we will do our best to awaken in ourselves, in our fellow Catholics and in the culture at large a new appreciation for religious liberty and a renewed determination to defend it.”