Our mission to serve and educate: Bishop Kopacz addresses bill concerns

“The Diocese of Jackson supported and would continue to support a religious exemption on behalf of the mission of the Catholic Church with regard to education and social services. We would like to continue to provide these services while remaining faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The diocese had no involvement in the other portions of the bill that addressed business and government operations. The church will continue to work to protect its First Amendment right to worship, to educate and to serve in the public domain while respecting the dignity of all citizens.”

I responded to the recent inquires and feedback with the above statement regarding diocesan support for religious freedom that was signed into law in Mississippi with HB 1523 (Letter to Legislators). This law is wide ranging and it affects not only First Amendment Rights for recognized religious denominations, but also supports individual citizens with respect to freedom of conscience. The controversy, as we know, surrounds the conflict between religious freedom and freedom of conscience vs. discrimination. Most notably, although not exclusively, this has focused upon same sex civil unions and the redefinition of marriage in the law of the United States. For me as the Bishop of Jackson it is important to address this matter of vital importance as follows.

Parish Life and Worship The unchanging teaching of the Catholic Church regarding marriage for nearly two thousand years has been the indissoluble and faithful union of one man and one woman in the covenant of marriage between two baptized Christians. This is one of our seven Sacraments. I first wrote about it last summer after the Supreme Court ruling. Read it here. This unchangeable teaching has been restated by Pope Francis in his just released Post Synod Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, (The Joy of Love). “Marriage is between a man and a woman, and homosexual unions cannot be placed on the same level as Christian marriage.” (AL250) That said, it is important that we all learn to imitate God’s unconditional love for everyone. Pope Francis wholeheartedly continues: “The Church makes her own the attitude of the Lord Jesus, who offers his boundless love to each person without exception.” (AL250) Furthermore, everyone is a son or daughter; everyone has a family history; everyone has bonds of love with family members; and everyone has friends in difficult and painful situations. “It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, or needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community, and thus to experience being touched by an unmerited, unconditional, and gratuitous mercy.” AL297

Pope Francis is beloved by many because he is able to reaffirm the teachings of the Church with fidelity, compassion, and hope, a standard for the entire Church. Some want to frame the debate surrounding the Church’s teaching as discrimination and hostility toward homosexual persons. On the contrary, we are being faithful to our mission to “speak the truth in love” and to live with the heart and mind of our risen Lord who came that all might be reconciled to God.

The Mission to Educate At the end of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, in the great mandatum directed to his apostles, Jesus said: “Go and baptize all the nations, teaching them everything I have commanded you, and know that I am with you until the end of the age.” The Church has been faithful to this mission for nearly two thousand years in a myriad of ways: most notably in the family, in parish communities, and in formal education. The Catholic Diocese of Jackson has been part of this mission to educate since its inception in 1837 in all manners of teaching, including in our Catholic School system begun in 1847. I provided a broader overview of our proud legacy of education in the State in my letter to the State Legislature. You can read the letter here. All teachers who formally represent the Catholic Church in our schools or parishes must teach what the Church believes, and must live in a manner that is in harmony with Church teaching. With respect to marriage in our mission to teach a Catholic must be married in the Church. If a Catholic is living with another – even if the couple is a man and woman – without benefit of marriage, or married civilly without benefit of a Church marriage, then they would not be hired, or their employment would be terminated. Same sex civil unions are seen in this light and the standards that underlie our Catholic ethos would apply. This is not a matter of discrimination but of being faithful to the mission and Gospel teachings entrusted to the Church by the Lord Jesus. My letter to the Legislature concerns the right of the Church to hire and commission educators without animus or prejudice to our tradition of faith. Lastly, it is essential to point out that the Catholic Church in Mississippi has educated all who have come through our doors, beginning with the children of slaves in the 1840s. Non Catholics comprise a significant percentage of those who occupy the seats in our school system, both as students and teachers, and diversity has been our hallmark since desegregation.

The Mission to Serve In the same letter to the State Legislators I made an appeal to the First Amendment Right to serve with regard to Catholic Charities which has been at the forefront of outreach to vulnerable populations in Mississippi since the mid 1960s. Currently there are 23 programs or ministries that serve homeless veterans, victims of domestic violence and rape, legal immigrants, unaccompanied refugee minors, and children in the state foster care system, to name a few. We serve all who are in need or in crisis situations with expertise, compassion, confidentiality, and respect. The dignity of each person is upheld, and no one is turned away. The two areas of concern of which I wrote surrounded adoption and foster care, asking the legislators to uphold our desire to serve while remaining faithful to our tradition of marriage in the placement of children. Throughout the country these programs have been addressed differently by state. At this time an accommodation for religious organizations is not needed in Mississippi with HB1523. (Should this law be repealed, we would again request these specific exemptions.) Although we are receiving public funds to carry out these programs, I still believe that it would be beneficial to our State for all sectarian and non-sectarian organizations to work together to serve vulnerable children. If a sectarian organization, like the Catholic Church, can only go so far because of their beliefs, other organizations can then address this gap in service. I believe that legislators can apply First Amendment common sense to support the service of the Church in society when by far and away it is a legacy of service for the common good.

In conclusion, I hope that it is clear that the Catholic Church in Mississippi is committed to building up the quality of life for all Mississippians, treating all with dignity and respect while remaining faithful to our tradition of faith, education, and service. Our role in supporting this bill was limited to the specific issues outlined above. This is invoked with malice toward none. Likewise, there is certainly a place for freedom of conscience in the public domain, an inviolable attribute of human dignity, but it should never be employed to discriminate against any person, a direct assault against human dignity.