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We need a new conversation about religion in American life


55306_5a073b73bf7ead939d81e7cb0eebdd88_71fd57973bd626224ae25ca1745faaa8Last week at the annual Spring meeting of the United States Catholic bishops, my brother bishops and I voted unanimously to continue our “ad hoc” Committee for Religious Liberty for another three years.

The fact that we need this Committee points to an uncomfortable reality — that our country’s original commitment to religious freedom is no longer certain.

…This is a time for all of us to pray for a renewal of our nation’s commitment to freedom — especially freedom of religion and conscience.

…Religious liberty and freedom of conscience are maybe too easy to take for granted…religion has always meant more than prayer and worship in American culture and society.

America’s founding documents reflect an essentially religious worldview — that God is our Creator and that he guides the course of human events.

Our Declaration of Independence makes it the government’s purpose to defend the God-given rights of every human person. Religious liberty is the “first freedom” in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, because America’s founders knew that a free society depends on having strong religious institutions and people shaped by the morality and virtues that flow from religious faith.

The question we face now as a society is whether we have “moved beyond” what our founders believed. Many people today, especially our political and cultural leaders, think we have. They believe the founders’ religious worldview is no longer relevant in our “post-modern” age.

I worry about this direction in our culture. In my opinion, if we forget that God is our Creator — and if we forget that human rights are given by God and not granted by government — then we lose the reason for fighting injustice and promoting human dignity.

…it is important for Catholics and other believers to take a leading role — as men and women of faith — in the debates and conversations that are shaping the direction and culture of our country.

So we need to continue this larger conversation about conscience and religion in American society.

As Catholics in this conversation, we need to remember that our faith in Jesus Christ is meant to have consequences. Not only in our own lives and in our own homes, but also in the society we live in. As Catholics, we have a viewpoint that our society needs to hear — a beautiful vision of human dignity and human society that we are called to share with our neighbors.

…Let’s pray for one another and let’s pray for our country. Especially for our leaders.

And let’s ask our Blessed Mother, Mary Immaculate, the patroness of this great country, to help all of us to become stronger in our understanding of the importance of religion in our society. 

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Europe, America and religious freedom


Earlier this month, members of Philadelphia’s Congregations of Ner Zedek found swastikas spray-painted on their synagogue. It was the second act of vandalism against their community this year. Americans have a natural repugnance for this kind of religious and ethnic bigotry, especially in the wake of the Holocaust. For Christians, whose own faith makes no sense if severed from its Jewish roots, anti-Semitism is a uniquely ugly sin.

Thus, while American Jews have often faced prejudice, the Jewish community has generally thrived in Philadelphia and the United States. And Jews have played a vital role, since the founding, in the development of the country we share.

I mention this because we Americans too easily take our habits of religious coexistence, cooperation and freedom for granted. And we shouldn’t. A recent Wall Street Journal commentary — “Do Jews Have a Future in Europe?” — noted that:

“The reality is that Europe’s Jews face almost daily attacks. In France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish community of about 650,000, the situation is particularly severe, with 170 anti-Semitic acts reported by the Paris-based Jewish Community Protection Service and the French Ministry of the Interior in the first trimester of 2014. According to the French League of Human Rights, nearly 50 percent of racist acts in France are anti-Semitic, though Jews are 1 percent of the population.”

Here’s my point. This week we American Catholics observe the third annual Fortnight for Freedom (June 21-July 4). The Fortnight [for Freedom] exists to remind us what an exceptional gift we have in our nation’s guarantees of religious liberty. But those guarantees are only as strong as our zeal in insisting on them; and in our determination to fight hard for them in our legislatures and courts.

We’re a long way in the United States from the kind of terrible violence experienced by many Jews in Europe and many Christians in Asia and Africa. America remains, in large measure, a nation of law, common sense and good will. But coercion comes in many forms, and Americans have no magic immunity from today’s growing government interference with their natural and constitutional rights — or with their religious consciences.

The theme for this year’s Fortnight for Freedom is “Freedom to Serve.” The Catholic community in Philadelphia has a long — and in fact, unrivaled — legacy of helping the poor, the disabled, the hungry, the orphan, the elderly, the homeless and the immigrant. We’re proud of that legacy, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to serve the needs of the wider public.

What we ask in return is simple. It’s also thoroughly consistent with the American ideal of religious freedom. Our charitable ministries do what they do because they’re Catholic, because we’re Catholic, and they embody and carry out our religious beliefs. But our ministries, and we ourselves, quite logically need to serve without violating the very religious and moral convictions that led us to serve in the first place.

It’s a reasonable request, and for believing Catholics, a fundamentally important one.  We’ll continue to press it in every way and at every level of judicial appeal available to us.  

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