The Church, today, is facing a threat to free exercise of religion
by Bishop Paul J. Swain - 7/2/2012
Most Rev. Paul J. Swain
Editor's note: The following are the featured comments Bishop Paul J. Swain made to the parishes of the diocese during the Fortnight for Freedom observed by Catholics across the country.
The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. This is Bishop Paul Swain.
I come to you through this recorded message today with a heavy heart yet with resolve and hope. The Church today, indeed our country today, is facing a threat to the free exercise of religion and the sanctity of religious conscience by which we live out what we believe. Long protected in law and ever present in our hearts from the moment of our conception, we are being told we must condone and even pay for what we know is morally wrong or face government penalties.
While the most prominent attack has come from the federal government with its attempt to define for us what is church and restrict us to ‘worshipping' only. There also are actions by state and local governments to restrict religious freedom. Fortunately that is not the case here in South Dakota, though we must be ever vigilant.
Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, God is Love, noted: “The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God, celebrating the sacraments, and exercising the ministry of charity. These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being.” (17) It is the exercise of the ministry of charity that is currently threatened by some government officials.
We Bishops of the United States in a prophetic statement entitled Our Most Precious Liberty, have declared that “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.” We cannot and we will not. I am convinced that most of our fellow citizens would not ask us to do so.
Yet the history of the United States and of the civilized world shows us that liberty must be repeatedly and vigorously defended. This reality has resulted in the great sacrifice of American men and women around the world which continues to this day. We pray for the souls of those who suffered the ultimate sacrifice in years past in defense of freedom and for the safety of those at risk today. History has also shown that faith and its free exercise at home and around the world must also continually be defended. The martyrs of the past teach us and embolden us. The threat to religious liberty is not limited to our country and its violent results are seen every day around the world in the vicious attacks on Christians in many lands and the burning of Christian churches by extremists representing many ideologies.
The challenge in the United States is more subtle but no less dangerous. An aggressive secular ideology has taken hold which seeks to remove religious based arguments from the public square and impose its own ideology on us all. Today it is seeking to force the Church to choose between living our moral beliefs and living our social teachings. Under a current federal government’s definition of Church, for example, your parish is safe for now, but Catholics hospitals and clinics no longer are accepted as religious; neither are Catholic schools or Catholic social ministries like Catholic Family Services that serve those in need. In effect what is being imposed is that the ministry of charity can no longer be freely practiced. This applies as well to individuals in business and other enterprises where you seek to live the ministry of charity.
Explaining the technical legal and political details is difficult in a message such as this. Let me summarize it as best I can. We are called to live what we believe. What we believe is that there is a God to whom we and all people will be held accountable and in the eyes of God the dignity and equality of every person is precious. What we believe is that we are one family and therefore must care about one another body and soul. This must result in setting forth for public engagement the Catholic tradition that reflects Gospel values and witnessing in word and practice our concern for all persons from conception to natural death, for marriage and family life, and for reaching out to the poor, the vulnerable and those with special need whether they are Catholics or not.
We do not seek to impose our beliefs on others but to live them ourselves, always calling others to discover the joy and peace that comes in knowing Jesus Christ as Lord as Savior. As someone has said, we do not reach out to others in need because they are Catholic but because we are Catholic.
I raise this with you to encourage you to become fully informed about the threat to religious liberty and the right of conscience that will remain with us beyond this year’s elections and current officeholders. The Church of course does not endorse candidates or political parties. While it is the role of the bishops and the Church to teach and inform consciences on the great moral issues of the day, it is the role of you the laity to take by word and witness Gospel values into the public square and into public life. I urge you to do so with greater intensity in this time of challenge.
Currently Catholics across the country are participating in a Fortnight for Freedom, which began on the memorial of Ss. Thomas More, a layman, and St. John Fisher, a clergyman, who were both put to death because they would not compromise their faith or surrender their conscience under the pressure of government power. It concludes on the Fourth of July when we recall the courage of those who signed the Declaration of Independence declaring, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I ask you to join with me and Catholics around the country in prayer these days and to engage as good citizens in the public dialogue on how to protect religious liberty and freedom of conscience for all.
“We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud to be both. To be Catholic and American should not mean having to choose one over the other.” We cannot and will not, and with the grace of God we need not.
Thank you for listening, please pray for our country, for our Church, and for one another. May Mary Immaculate patroness of our country, watch over and guide us all.