Why are we being encouraged by our bishops to focus on the issue of religious liberty? If your only awareness of the suggested Fortnight for Freedom comes from the popular media, you might well think this is all about health insurance programs and contraception coverage. However, at its core a much deeper and far more significant issue has arisen. It is about what it means to practice your faith and how recent federal government regulations fail to recognize that the practice of our Catholic faith extends beyond the sanctuary to our participation in and service to society.
According to these new regulations, we are considered to be practicing our Catholic faith, for example, in social service, health care and educational programs, only when what we do is done only by Catholics and only for Catholics. So while those who work for a Catholic parish are considered exempt from certain regulations, those who work for Catholic social service agencies, healthcare institutions, and colleges and universities are not.
What we do as a faith community in conjunction with other people of good will and for anyone in need, unless it is done only by Catholics and for Catholics, does not meet the recent federal government regulation standard of being a significant religious act.
Matthew Chapter 25 tells us that we will be judged on how we encounter Jesus as we feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and visit the prisoner, a stark reminder that action on behalf of the least of us is not a pleasant accessory or simply a nice thing to do. It is, rather, at the heart of our faith.
Nowhere does Jesus tell us to limit our care and concern to Catholics only, or only to the baptized.
The late Cardinal James Hickey of Washington was once asked why the Church should bother with an immigrant group, largely comprised of non-Catholics. Would it not be better to evangelize them first, make them Catholic, and then offer assistance? “We do it not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic. They are Jesus in disguise,” the cardinal responded.
It is “because we are Catholic” that we do what we do in living out our faith in society.
It is the judgment by our government on the value of Catholic ministries – exempting those who minister largely to Catholics while insisting that those who work in charity, justice and higher education do not enjoy the same protection – which we consider objectionable, which we protest. In response, the Catholic bishops are sponsoring a public campaign called a “Fortnight for Freedom” that will run June 21-July 4, beginning with a Mass in Baltimore and culminating with a Mass in Washington.
Current religious liberty concerns extend even beyond these federal regulations. For example, in Alabama a Catholic driving fellow Catholics to Sunday Mass would be in violation of a new state law if any passengers were undocumented immigrants. The Catholic bishops in Alabama, joined by other Christian leaders, were able to persuade a judge to stop, at least temporarily, this particular provision. In Arizona, our bishops have also objected to a provision in a state immigration law that would prohibit social service outreach to those who are undocumented.
As Americans, we value religious liberty. As Catholics, inspired by the Gospel message of Matthew 25, we believe that religious liberty is not simply limited to how we worship but also how we live out the Gospel. We will continue to minister to all, not because everyone is Catholic, but because we are, and we will continue to insist that government honor this core belief.
Msgr. McGrath is vicar general and moderator of the curia of the Diocese of Camden