We want the right to follow our consciences, to worship our God, and to live out our faith by making a contribution within the public square, which is our patrimony and our heritage: our blessed liberties.
We have concluded the “Fortnight for Freedom,” instigated by the United States Conference Catholic Bishops. We now draw near to the decisive hour. It is an hour of decision in the history of our great nation; for it is an hour that truly challenges American Catholics’ sense of discipleship.
It was a fortnight in which our bishops asked us to reflect upon our liberties, our history, and our current state of affairs. If you have thought about these issues at all, you know that our history has not lied in this case: America is a nation that was built upon reverence for God, his natural law, and respect for the primacy of individual conscience and religious tradition.
In 1636, 140 years before Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the little colony of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, made freedom of conscience and religion the keystone of his community.
In 1776, in the Declaration of Independence, and again in 1789, in the Constitution of the United States, both documents clearly stated the “limitations of government.” In 1791, the Bill of Rights, also carefully enunciated the rights of each individual citizen—the first right being freedom of religion.
James Madison, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, as well as its secretary and recorder, described the legitimacy of conscience as: “the most sacred of all property.” 1 He wrote: “The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as they may dictate.” 2
George Washington wrote, “the establishment of civil and religious liberty was the motive that induced [him] to the field of battle.” 3
In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson assured the Ursuline Sisters of Louisiana—who had, for 77 years, been serving an indigenous population by operating schools, hospitals, and an orphanage—that their ministry would be free “to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without, interference from the civil authority.” 4
This is a matter of history. It is not a matter of conjecture, dispute, or equivocation. Yet, it is clear that the vast majority of our current state and federal government leaders do not accept this understanding of what the founding fathers of our nation wrote, lived, and established as our heritage.
So, we are at this hour of decision, an hour that will determine the depth of our discipleship, testing our understanding of who we are as American Catholics.
Many pundits, commentators, and, yes, even Catholic politicians, have remarked that there is nothing to worry about with this Supreme Court approved health care law. However, our Church leaders (our bishops) are united in telling us that there is, in fact, something drastically wrong with this law.
The American bishops have been united and clear on this issue. 5 They tell us that this Fortnight for Freedom has been about getting American Catholics—all 52 million of us—to understand that our federal government will force our Church to provide for certain types of medical procedures, even though it is in direct violation of our collective conscience. But, the Federal government’s actions are wrong and must be opposed.
Our society may well ask: “What do you want?”
Our Church responds, as we respond, that as Catholics we ask nothing more than what Sts. Peter and Paul, all the martyred ones, and true disciples of Jesus Christ, wanted. As citizens of the United States, we ask nothing more than what Roger Williams, George Washington, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and all true American statesmen and women have wanted.
Simply put, we want the right to follow our consciences, to worship our God as we see fit, and to live out our faith by making a contribution within the public square. We ask nothing more of our government than what our history has told us is our patrimony and our heritage: our blessed liberties.
This is the hour of demonstrating our discipleship in Christ Jesus. We must not shrink back in fear, for our sense of commitment to our nation’s heritage, and our loyalty to Jesus Christ and our Church, demands that we do not compromise on this issue.
We believe that all Americans, of all religious persuasions—not just our federal and state governments—must be allowed to make a contribution to the common good as prescribed by our faith and sense of duty. This is a liberty that has always been granted under our system of laws until this critical moment in our country’s history.
What should we do? We should use all the law-abiding and peaceful means at our disposal to inform our elected officials of this singular outrage against freedom of conscience. If they don’t address and rectify our concerns, we must remember it, responding accordingly when we select our state and federal representatives. We can do no less.
Let us pray that, through the intercession of the Holy Spirit, we may have the courage, individually and collectively, to act as disciples of Christ—remaining peaceful, courageous, and steadfast in the face of imperial tyranny.
- James Madison, “Property,” March 29, 1792, in The Founding Fathers, Eds. Philip B. Kurland and Ralph Lerner (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), presspubs.uchicago.edu… ↩
- James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment,” June 20, 1785, in The Founding Fathers. ↩
- Michael Novak and Jana Novak, Washington’s God, 2006. ↩
- Anson Phelps Stokes, Church and State in the United States (Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1950), 678. ↩
- Commentary based on statements from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty document: “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty.” ↩