When the Catholic bishops in the United States launched their Fortnight for Freedom program in 2012, its goal was to address a very real problem. The Obama administration was trying to create a distinction between religious freedom and religious liberty. The administration indicated it was willing to respect the religious liberty of Americans to attend whatever church, mosque, synagogue, temple, or other worship service they wanted, but it did not think that Americans should be permitted the religious freedom to act on their beliefs once they walked outside those buildings.
Catholics and many other believers thought they deserved both.
During Religious Freedom Week, starting on June 22, 2021, the USCCB asks Catholics to “pray, reflect, and act” regarding eight current assaults on religious freedom. I’m certain that hundreds of parish Respect Life leaders like myself hope that many Catholics will take this call to prayer seriously. After all, the same discriminatory actions against people of faith that caused concern in 2012—and more—have been proposed again in the past six months.
These attacks on religious liberty have not come solely from the White House. But, as the Catholic League recently pointed out, our self-proclaimed “devout Catholic” President has unleashed a veritable onslaught of administrative actions that run counter to Catholic teaching, many of which threaten religious freedom. Unfortunately, we cannot force President Biden to sit down with a good priest or bishop to simply read the passages of the Catechism of the Catholic Church which explain Church teaching on abortion and euthanasia (nos. 2270-2279). We cannot force the US bishops to address the grave scandal (nos. 2284-2287) that is being caused by Catholic politicians, such as President Biden, who see no conflict between their advocacy of abortion and their faith. We certainly cannot expect the mainstream media to care about either of those things or even notice a Catholic prayer campaign.
But, as Catholics, we don’t believe in respecting religious freedom and respecting the dignity of human life because we came up with these teachings on our own. We believe in the dignity of human life because God has revealed certain truths, and we believe in him. The Savior who spoke the truth to anyone who would listen, who let his listeners choose whether to follow him or walk away, who started changing the world before he was even born, and who was killed unjustly, has already showed us where to stand on the issues of conscience rights, abortion, and euthanasia. All we are called to do is obey.
The eight days of this campaign include prayers for protection for the suffering Christians of Nicaragua and Iraq, as well as an end to vandalism of churches here in America. We will pray for conscience protections for medical personnel, wisdom for Catholic hospitals and institutions as they serve the sick with respect to the COVID pandemic, charity in speech as we explain our beliefs to others, and the freedom to help children be placed in homes through adoption.
We also pray in opposition to a blatant assault on religious freedom: the “Equality” Act. Put bluntly, this act has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with mandating abortion and forcing believers to accept “woke” definitions of what it means to be men and women. In each of these prayer requests, we do not ask the government or our neighbors to follow our beliefs, but we do ask for the right to follow our own.
However, the problem of a government telling Catholics that they must abandon their beliefs is not new. That is why it is so perfect that we should begin the week by remembering Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, two English Catholics whose feast day is June 22nd.
Saint Thomas More was a husband, father, and brilliant lawyer who became the chancellor of England. When it became impossible for him to remain neutral about King Henry VIII’s abandonment of his wife for another woman (under the guise of an invalid marriage), he knew that stepping down from his position would have consequences. Those consequences were severe: poverty, imprisonment, and ultimately execution.
Saint John Fisher was a scholar, preacher, and bishop of Rochester, England, whose personal austerity even saved him from death on one occasion. Someone poisoned the food served for dinner in the bishop’s household, which killed two people and sickened many others. The bishop, who often fasted and ate simply, was not harmed. Although there was no clear proof of who was responsible, it was not hard to identify Anne Boleyn as a likely culprit. Ultimately, Fisher’s steadfastness got him executed, though Boleyn herself suffered the same fate about a year later.
The only tools we have to help people understand our beliefs are the same tools possessed by More, Fisher, and every other saint. That is, by drawing close to God through prayer and the sacraments, trying to live virtuously each day, treating others with charity and respect, and learning how to explain our beliefs to others, we become more like Christ. That presence of Jesus Christ can open doors that anger and fear will never budge. Reminding God that we need help (i.e., praying to him) is always the best first step.
Did More and Fisher’s prayer and faithfulness make a difference? After all, King Henry was personally responsible for many deaths, including some of his six wives and tens of thousands of other faithful Catholics. Will it make a difference if Catholics today dare to pray for God’s help and if people of faith are inspired to stand up for their rights for religious freedom in their personal and professional lives?
Only God knows. But as Catholics, we know that we are called to pray for those who are in need of help. Someday they may be praying for you and me.
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