Religious freedom, freedom of conscience Print E-mail
Bishop's Column
Thursday, Mar. 29, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

Dear Friends,

Last week I was privileged to be a witness to religious freedom and freedom of conscience with nearly 500 faithful people at the Federal building in downtown Madison. Such rallies had been quickly organized around our nation and I know that not all who might have come were able (or even aware of the events).

Those who were able to gather, however, were in large part Catholic (though not all), and in being there, they were really doing what the Second Vatican Council meant by “lay mission,” that is, applying the standards of God’s Kingdom to the real world.

That is the true role that the Church was trying to enliven in the laity through Vatican II — faithful people witnessing actively to today’s world, bringing the Church into the world of today (as opposed to the idea that the main way one can be an “active” Catholic is by performing different liturgical roles).

The women, men, and children gathered in Madison last week were undertaking the lay mission of the Church, which is to witness to the sanctifying presence of God in the world and I’d encourage all of us to remember our call to that mission in our everyday lives, and as we look to the future of our nation.

Faith and reason flowing together

As Catholics, one of our great gifts is that we are very comfortable with the flowing together of faith and reason. Many other religions do not take that approach. For instance, there have been theologians down through the centuries who have said things like, “I have faith, precisely because it’s absurd.” That is not our Catholic genius, not the special gift that the Holy Spirit has given us in the Catholic Church; we focus on faith and reason working together and in harmony.

In the battle in which we have recently been placed, with regard to the Federal Administration’s requirement that all Americans, including the Catholic Church, and individual Catholic employers pay for such things as chemical abortions, contraception, and sterilizations, we have a major opportunity to exhibit our reasonableness.

Certainly, the opportunity has arisen at this time for us to make the case for the immorality of contraception, abortion, and sterilization, because the topic has returned to the public attention. Certainly that case needs to be made in accord with reason, for truly we do not believe that contraception, abortion, etc., are wrong simply because we are Catholic. No, the Catholic Church holds these convictions because they are true and in accord with human reason.

Freedom of conscience is top priority

But, at this moment, in terms of our engagement in the political realm, we need to keep our focus on the freedom of conscience as the top priority, because if we lose the freedom of conscience battle, we’re going nowhere with all the other battles that we have to fight.

Putting aside what they think with regard to abortion, contraception, and the like, every human being who thinks these things through should agree with us that the respect for the human conscience is absolute.

People who have beliefs different from us should want their consciences protected. Who wouldn’t want their consciences protected? At this time, in our country, there’s not going to be a broad agreement about issues such as contraception (though we do have to continue to make our case), but there should be the broadest possible agreement about the protection of the freedom of conscience of every individual.

Employees not being denied freedom of conscience

A new argument that’s being made against our demand for freedom of religion and our demand for freedom of conscience is that we are trying to uphold the freedom of conscience of a Catholic or religious institution at the expense of our employees.

The argument being made against us is that we are fighting for freedom of conscience for our institutions and Catholic employers by denying freedom of conscience to employees, thus making our stance for freedom of conscience “fake.” The argument is a clever one, but not correct.

The employer, presumably a Catholic lay person who believes in his or her lay mission, should not be forced to pay for someone else’s contraception, abortion, or sterilization.

When people come to work for an institution or a company with a Catholic mission, or whose owner is a person of deeply Catholic conviction, they know precisely what they are doing and make a free-will choice to do so.

That Catholic who is the employer should not have his or her conscience violated so that someone else has free access to things with which the payer (the employer) is in total disagreement.

No one can say, with a straight face, that in the United States of America our “right” to contracept is under attack. Contraception is everywhere and is relatively inexpensive.

The argument at hand is not whether or not someone should be able easily and affordably to find contraception if they so choose. The availability and affordability of contraception is not at risk. The argument at hand is whether we should be forced to pay for it under the guise that pregnancy is a disease, all in violation of our conscience.

For years now we have been subject to the pro-abortion mantra, “it is my body and my choice” (and of course we believe that is incorrect as there are other lives — other bodies — at stake), but now it seems the mantra must be, “it is my body, my choice, on your dollar.”

Each Catholic has a mission of faith

Each of you has a mission — it is the lay mission of your Catholic faith — to think and speak clearly, remembering that faith and reason work together, and that faith and reason are on our side. But we have to be able to explain how faith and reason are on our side. This is something about which we need to read more, we need to think about more, and most importantly we need to pray about more.

It’s Lent and we’re coming upon Easter. Easter should not be for us a day which is filled to the brim with politics. Easter should be for us a day filled with life, the life of the Risen Lord, filled with the awareness that human life is sacred because it is destined to be glorified with Christ.

Our destiny is eternal life, and that is what Easter is all about, and that is why we have a right to live our lives for that purpose.

So, let’s do what we need to do in terms of making clear that this regulation that takes away our freedom of conscience cannot and will not stand. Let’s do it in a way which is very charitable, which is very reasonable, and which carries with it a smile, because where there is no charity, we cannot expect the Resurrection power of Jesus Christ to be unleashed.

Let’s make sure we are charitable, but let’s make sure we are clear and we are heard. Sometimes we can be tempted wrongly to think that charity and reasonableness are excuses for acting like wimps.

We have to speak out clearly, charitably, reasonably, unmistakably, unambiguously, about freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. Let’s do all of that actively today, so that we can enjoy the glory of Easter tomorrow!

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Praised be Jesus Christ!