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Defending Our Catholic Identity


by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

The witness of Knights during the persecution of the Church in Mexico provides lessons as we defend religious freedom today

Carl A. Anderson

Nearly 20 years ago, Blessed John Paul II visited the United States and urged us to protect our First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. Speaking in 1995 in Baltimore, he said these words, quoted by our supreme chaplain, Archbishop William Lori, at his installation as archbishop of Baltimore in May: “The challenge facing you, dear friends, is to increase people’s awareness of the importance of religious freedom for society; to defend that freedom against those who would take religion out of the public domain and establish secularism as America’s official faith. And it is vitally necessary, for the very survival of the American experience, to transmit to the next generation the precious legacy of religious freedom and the convictions which sustain it.”

What foresight those words show. Blessed John Paul II’s words ring true today with renewed importance.

What is at stake in our current defense of religious freedom is not simply the right of Catholics to practice our faith freely and without having to become entangled and complicit in actions that violate our conscience. That would be bad enough. But what is also at stake is the question of who defines the mission and purpose of the Catholic Church itself.

As I noted in my speech at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in April, the federal government has sought to interfere with the identity of religion twice in the past year.

First, there was a case that dealt with whether the government or a church should decide who should be considered a minister. In that case — Hosanna Tabor v. EEOC — the administration argued that the definition of a minister should be restricted. It would have eliminated the “ministerial exception” that protects religions from employment laws when it comes to those in ministry. According to the government, if any “ministerial exception” in employment exists, it should be strictly “limited to those employees who perform exclusively religious functions.”

Such reasoning caused Chief Justice John Roberts to ask during oral argument whether even the pope could meet the administration’s definition of a religious minister. And it caused the Supreme Court to unanimously disagree with the administration saying, “We are unsure whether any such employees exist,” because even the highest ranking churchmen have “a mix of duties.”

Similarly, the HHS mandate allows only the narrowest exemption for religious institutions — covering only institutions that primarily hire and serve members of their own faith.

As Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston put it: “Jesus himself, or the Good Samaritan … would not qualify as ‘religious enough’ for the exemption, since they insisted on helping people who did not share their view of God.”

Christ called all Christians to reach beyond their own denominations in teaching “all nations,” considering everyone their “neighbor,” and doing “good to those who hate” them. He defined our “neighbor” as anyone in need — and in his parable of the Good Samaritan, Christ specifically included those of other religions in his definition of neighbor.

In the Hosanna Tabor case, the Supreme Court unanimously characterized the government’s position as allowing “government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.”

Precisely the same can be said of the HHS mandate. The definition of religion in the exemption redefines the basic tenets and mission of Christianity. And a government willing to affect the tenets and mission of the Church is a government willing to change the identity of the Church.

Secularism sees religion as something that should be limited to “freedom of worship,” as something that should happen in church buildings only, and not be brought into the public square. But our First Amendment guarantees us free exercise of religion, and fundamental to this is our ability to follow the principles of our religion as defined by Christ, not by the government.

We have seen these two serious threats to religious freedom in the past year. The first lost in court, the second is unpopular in the court of public opinion. Indeed, the HHS mandate may well be reversed legislatively or legally, but there could be future threats as well.

As we celebrate Independence Day, and the rights “endowed by our Creator,” we would do well to pause and recall these often quoted words: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”

Vivat Jesus!