By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
As a nation we eagerly look ahead later next week to commemorate and celebrate our nation’s most revered national holiday, the Fourth of July. We cherish our political, religious and civil freedoms, and in recent times the Church has honed in on that freedom that has priority of place in the First Amendment of our Constitution, Religious Freedom.
The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Catholic Church, along with many other religious leaders, theologians, lay practitioners, and community servants believe that a significant threat to religious liberty is afoot in the land. (Their joint July 2, 2013 statement may be found on page 14.) The Department of Health and Human Service’s mandate of insurance coverage for sterilization, contraception, and abortion-inducing drugs in the Affordable Care Act commonly referred to, as Obamacare is the direct threat to religious liberty. Many people of faith and good will are observing that the government has taken it upon itself to narrowly define who is entitled to enjoy the religious freedom that is guaranteed in the First Amendment of our Constitution.
The HHS’ mandate seeks to narrowly exempt from the Health Care Law only those who are employed in houses of worship, and is not extending the same religious liberty to those who work and serve in in Catholic health care facilities, educational institutions and social services.
The Church believes that the mission Jesus Christ entrusted to us is a seamless garment of worship, Word, and service that is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be arbitrarily dissected by unjust laws. This is nothing short of prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or the freedom to serve.
In other words, religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the rosary at home. It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith? Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights and social services that religious Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America issued a statement about the administration’s contraception and sterilization mandate that captured exactly the danger that we face:
Most troubling, is the Administration’s underlying rationale for its decision, which appears to be a view that if a religious entity is not insular, but engaged with broader society, it loses its “religious” character and liberties. Many faiths firmly believe in being open to and engaged with broader society and fellow citizens of other faiths. The Administration’s ruling makes the price of such an outward approach the violation of an organization’s religious principles. This is deeply disappointing.
This is not a Catholic issue. This is not a Jewish issue. This is not an Orthodox, Mormon, or Muslim issue. It is an American issue.
As Christians of various traditions we object to a “naked public square,” stripped of religious arguments and religious believers. We do not seek a “sacred public square” either, which gives special privileges and benefits to religious citizens. Rather, we seek a civil public square, where all citizens can make their contribution to the common good. At our best, we might call this an American public square established in the First Amendment of our cherished Constitution.
As Freedom Summer unfolds before us, we recall the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Americans shone the light of the Gospel on a dark history of slavery, segregation, and racial bigotry. The civil rights movement was an essentially religious movement, a call to awaken consciences, not only an appeal to the Constitution for America to honor its heritage of liberty.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. boldly said, “The goal of America is freedom.” As a Christian pastor, he argued that to call America to the full measure of that freedom was the specific contribution Christians are obliged to make. He rooted his legal and constitutional arguments about justice in the long Christian tradition:
I would agree with Saint Augustine “An unjust law is no law at all.” Now what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.
It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.
We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both, grateful for the gift of faith which is ours as Christian disciples, and grateful for the gift of liberty which is ours as American citizens. To be Catholic and American should mean not having to choose one over the other. Our allegiances are distinct, but they need not be contradictory, and should instead be complementary. That is the teaching of our Catholic faith, which obliges us to work together with fellow citizens for the common good of all who live in this land. That is the vision of our founding and our Constitution, which guarantees citizens of all religious faiths the right to contribute to our common life together.
Have a blessed Fourth of July that sparkles with the dignity of life at all stages, the blessing of liberty on all levels and the pursuit of happiness that finds its source and summit in the One who bestows all life and freedoms.
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz