Religious Freedom

It will be a time of struggle, but we must never forget that struggle is nothing new to the Church. 

In the category of sentences I never expected to hear or read in this country, I include the following: “Religious freedom, in its many and varied applications for Christians and people of faith, is now increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in America.” 

These dismaying words were written by my good friend Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. They appeared in a letter to his fellow bishops announcing the establishment of an ad hoc committee, the purpose of which is to defend religious liberty from a government that seems to grow increasingly intolerant of it. 

Can this really be happening? Can we really have reached a time in the history of our country in which we must defend — or even fight to regain — some of the very liberties that have made the United States a Mecca to oppressed people the world over for more than two centuries? The answer, I regret to tell you, is yes. As regular readers of The Priest will know, I discussed this topic in general terms in my column last month, but I consider it so important that I want to revisit it. In this column I want to address a specific and essential question: What should priests do about this disturbing situation? 

To help answer this question I spoke with Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, chairman of the bishops’ Committee. One of the first things he said to me was: “I think it is important to remind priests that religious liberty has been eroding for years but now the threats are real and immediate and will have an effect on the lives of their parishioners.” As examples, he gave the efforts to drive Catholic Charities out of foster care and adoption and to force private insurers to cover abortifacients and sterilization. 

He also made it clear that we clergy do not have the luxury of ignoring this situation. In other words, it is simply not an option for us to let the bishops fight this one alone. Bishop Lori told me in no uncertain terms that the bishops “rely on priests as their closest co-workers” in making Catholics aware of this danger and in mobilizing a strong and appropriate response from the faithful. It is our job as priests to bring “this message to 17,000 parishes around the nation,” the bishop told me. He called the leadership of priests “crucial” if we hope to improve the current sad state of affairs. 

That means that we priests have to do something we usually don’t like to do: we have to make waves. We have to speak about this problem clearly and repeatedly from the pulpit. We cannot sugarcoat it; we cannot be ambiguous; we cannot be afraid of offending people. The bishops’ ad hoc committee will help us in this. They are currently preparing materials for preaching and for communicating about religious liberty to parishioners. It is up to us to use these materials well and effectively. Bishop Lori made it clear that this is by no means a call to immerse ourselves “in partisan politics but rather to address issues of grave importance not only for the well-being of the Church but indeed for the common good of society.” 

I suspect that the immediate future will be a difficult but definitely interesting time. The current situation actually reminds me of other times when priests had to “address issues of grave importance” for both the Church and the culture. In fact, it reminds me of a particular struggle that I encountered early in my priesthood. From the time I was ordained in 1959, I often gave homilies that dealt with civil rights, which was among the burning issues of that time. This was not always a pleasant thing for a young priest to do. It angered some people; it absolutely infuriated others, and once or twice members of the congregation actually verbally challenged me in church during a homily. I didn’t like it, but I survived.  

You will, too. TP 

Father Groeschel is the director for the Office of Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York and professor of pastoral psychology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York. He is also a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.