In a June 21 column in the Catholic Star Herald, Msgr. Roger McGrath, vicar general for the Diocese of Camden, wrote powerfully on the importance of religious liberty. The column coincides with the start of the “Fortnight for Freedom,” a two-week period of prayer, education and action related to religious freedom designated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The idea for the Fortnight was sparked by a mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which requires almost all employers to pay for contraception coverage and abortion-inducing drugs.
Msgr. Roger’s biggest problem with the mandate is that while it exempts religious organizations that are entirely composed of and provide services to “co-religionists” (so, in our case, only Catholics), religious organizations that provide services to non-Catholics are not exempt. This is an attempt by the government to define what constitutes religious activity.
He wrote: “As Americans, we value religious liberty. As Catholics, inspired by the Gospel message of Matthew 25, we believe that religious liberty is not simply limited to how we worship but also how we live out the Gospel. We will continue to minister to all, not because everyone is Catholic, but because we are, and we will continue to insist that government honor this core belief.”
We sat down on Thursday to talk about the Fortnight and how Catholics can observe it this year.
In response to attacks on religious liberty around the world, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has declared a second annual “Fortnight for Freedom,” running from Friday through July 4. Over the next 14 days, the Fortnight calls on Catholics to learn about threats to religious liberty here and abroad, pray for the protection of religious freedom, and act to preserve this essential human right.
The best place to access Fortnight resources is online at www.fortnight4freedom.org, where you’ll find educational videos, written prayer services and reflections, and legislative action alerts.
My job here is to convince you to click over to the Web site and observe the Fortnight in your home and your faith community. Here are three reasons you should get involved.
1. The Fortnight is all about who we are as Catholics.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a mandate that requires almost all employers provide their employees with access to contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
The biggest problem with the mandate is that it exempts only a narrow range of religious institutions from having to provide these products and services, which are all inconsistent with Catholic teaching. To be exempt, a religious organization must only employ members of that particular faith tradition, and can only serve members of that tradition.
Of course, we know that so many of our cherished Catholic institutions employ and serve non-Catholics: Catholic Charities. Catholic schools and universities. Catholic hospitals. As our diocesan vicar general Monsignor Roger McGrath recently said at a meeting, “We don’t care for people because they’re Catholic. We do it because we’re Catholic.”
By enforcing such a narrow exemption, the government is attempting to define what Catholicism is. This is not the government’s job. And it is a gross violation of our right to practice our faith freely and fully.
2. The Fortnight is “Ampersandy.”
If you’ve read any of my columns before, or visited the Life & Justice Ministries blog, you know I’m really into the ampersand – & – in the title of this office. It’s my favorite punctuation mark.
Why? John Carr, my boss when I interned at the USCCB during college, liked to say that the most important word in Catholic social teaching is “and”: we’re about human life AND dignity, family AND community, human rights AND responsibilities.
The Fortnight for Freedom sits right on that ampersand between Life & Justice. The USCCB designated the Fortnight primarily in response to the HHS mandate, which undermines the sanctity of human life. But http://www.fortnight4freedom.org also criticizes other domestic attacks on religious liberty, like certain state immigration laws, which forbid what they deem as the “harboring” of undocumented immigrants. The Church uses other terms for this sort of activity – like Christian charity and pastoral care.
The priorities of the Fortnight for Freedom call us to renew our own commitments to the protection of human life AND the promotion of justice for those who are on the margins of society.
3. Religious freedom is literally a matter of life and death in many places around the world – especially for Christians.
John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter wrote the following in his September 7, 2012 column: “Most people, most of the time, are fundamentally decent. Hence if they knew that there’s a minority facing an epidemic of persecution — a staggering total of 150,000 martyrs every year, meaning 17 deaths every hour — there would almost certainly be a groundswell of moral and political outrage.
“There is such a minority in the world today, and it’s Christianity. The fact that there isn’t yet a broad-based movement to fight anti-Christian persecution suggests something is missing in public understanding.”
In a talk to the USCCB, Georgetown professor Robert F. Farr reported that 70% of the world’s population lives in countries in which religious freedom is either highly or very highly restricted. Religious minorities most subject to persecution are Christians, who were harassed in 130 countries between 2006 and 2009.
Religious freedom concerns here at home are important, to be sure. But the Fortnight for Freedom is a reminder that so many millions of our Christian sisters and brothers around the world are suffering and often literally dying for what they believe.
How can we respond to the needs of these Christians overseas? Consider making a donation to Catholic Relief Services at www.crs.org, which works with victims of violence and persecution around the world, and partners with individual communities abroad to help them become places of stability and opportunity.
Then, head over to www.fortnight4freedom.org and see how else you can get involved in the protection of one of the most fundamental human rights.