|A large U.S. flag hangs from the Knights’ Tower at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., welcoming pilgrims to a Mass and Pilgrimage for Life and Liberty Oct. 14, 2012. Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore celebrated the Mass, which was attended by nearly 6,000 people from throughout the region.
Last year in Baltimore, after the opening Mass of the 2012 Fortnight for Freedom, I stood on the portico of the Basilica of the Assumption to greet members of the congregation as they exited the church. A young girl with her parents came up to me, handed me a little American flag and said, “That was fun! I hope we do this a lot!”
Everyone laughed, and I went on greeting the many people who had attended Mass. Later on, though, I thought about the little girl’s reaction. Although her reasons for enjoying that Mass were probably not the same as mine, I do know that Catholics need to gather yearly to pray for religious liberty — not only for my generation but also for that little girl’s. That is why I was delighted when the U.S. bishops decided to organize the Fortnight for Freedom again this year — a 14-day period of prayer, reflection and action to promote a greater understanding of religious liberty in the two weeks leading up to Independence Day.
The Fortnight will officially begin with an opening Mass in Baltimore’s Basilica of the Assumption on June 21 at 7 p.m. and end with a closing Mass on July 4 at noon at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. During this period, the Church celebrates the feast days of two saints who are champions of religious freedom: St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher. This year, dioceses across the United States will again be organizing Masses, prayer gatherings, study groups, rallies and many other activities in observance of the Fortnight.
REFLECTING ON FREEDOM
Why is it so important to continue the Fortnight for Freedom? Some of the reasons are short-term. For example, most religious organizations will be forced to comply with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate on Aug. 1 of this year. This will compel religious organizations, regardless of their teachings, to include coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization and contraception in their employee health care plans. So-called accommodations proposed by the administration to allay the religious freedom concerns of religious organizations have not improved the situation and may even make it worse.
Further, if potential Supreme Court rulings legally redefine marriage or otherwise contribute to the redefinition of marriage throughout the United States, they could cause serious religious freedom issues for adoption agencies run by the Church and other religious groups. Such rulings could also raise concerns for immigration and humanitarian services offered by the Catholic Church and others.
The Fortnight for Freedom is an important opportunity to highlight these and other immediate religious liberty issues in the United States. It offers a sobering moment for all of us to realize how religious freedom has eroded over time and to ask for God’s help in protecting such a precious gift.
But the Fortnight is an occasion for even more than that. It also represents a chance for us, as citizens and believers, to take stock of the importance of religious freedom in the American experience. Our First Most Cherished Liberty, a document from the U.S. bishops’ Ad-Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty that was published in April 2012, sums it up this way: “By the end of the 18th century, our nation’s founders embraced freedom of religion as an essential condition for a free and democratic society.” It goes on to implore us to protect the gift of freedom “not only for ourselves, but for all nations and peoples who yearn to be free.”
TRUTH AND DIGNITY
The American experience of freedom and the Church’s teaching on human freedom and dignity are not identical. However, the Church’s social teaching equips us as both citizens and believers to participate robustly in our democratic form of government and to evangelize our society with the truth about the human person and the conditions for human flourishing.
Dignitatis Humanae, the groundbreaking Vatican II document on religious freedom, explains that the principle of religious freedom is rooted in the dignity of the human person, who is “endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility” (2). This principle is known not only by revelation, but also by reason, and it allows human persons to fulfill their obligation to seek God. Hence religious freedom is rightly identified as a civil or constitutional right that is grounded in the truth about the human person.
According to Dignitatis Humanae, all persons “should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and order their whole lives in accord with the demands of the truth” (2).
To be sure, the freedom to embrace truth might sound like an odd idea in a culture that increasingly values opinion over truth and even rejects the very idea that truth about the nature of things is both knowable and binding on our consciences. Yet when the very notion of truth, especially the truth about the inviolable dignity of the human person, is denied, democracy itself begins to falter. The truth about the human person is the foundation of all our rights, including religious freedom.
Because this principle applies to all people, the bishops have expressed their support not only for religious organizations that are in court fighting to preserve the freedom of church institutions from government interference, but also for private employers who are in court seeking to retain the freedom to run their businesses according to Christian principles.
UNITED IN PRAYER
There is an increasing tendency on the part of many in our society to reduce religious liberty almost solely to freedom of worship. This we must resist. Religious freedom surely includes freedom of worship, but it also includes the freedom for private individuals to live their faith in the workplace and to advocate in the public square those truths and values that flow from faith. Moreover, authentic religious freedom includes the freedom of churches and church organizations to conduct their schools, social services and other activities in accordance with their beliefs and teachings.
Precisely because of this tendency to reduce religious freedom to freedom of worship, we need to come together in prayer. We need to pray as individuals and families. We need to pray in our Knights of Columbus council meetings and at conventions. And we, the family of the Knights of Columbus, need to make every effort to participate wholeheartedly in the national and local activities of this year’s Fortnight for Freedom.
May we unite in protecting our first and most cherished freedom, religious liberty!
ARCHBISHOP WILLIAM E. LORI of Baltimore is the supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus and chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad-Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.