||Bishop Paul J. Swain of Sioux Falls, S.D., speaks on the topic of religious freedom to the St. Thomas More Society in Madison. (Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner)
MADISON -- Religious liberty is one of the first values protected in the Bill of Rights. People had come to America to avoid religious persecution and so those writing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution knew the importance of providing for religious liberty.
Bishop Paul J. Swain, formerly in the Air Force, a lawyer, legal counsel to Governor Lee Dreyfus, and a convert to Catholicism, recently spoke as a guest of the St. Thomas More Society on the Feast of St. Thomas More.
Bishop Swain is well known in the Madison area, having spent about 40 years here, discerning his call to priesthood, converting, becoming a priest, pastor, and vicar general before being named Bishop of Sioux Falls, S.D.
Defending religious freedom
Speaking just days before the Supreme Court decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Bishop Swain said, “Be assured this attack on religious liberty is not limited to one regulation, nor will it be resolved by one decision of the United States Supreme Court. . . . History has shown that faith and its free exercise must continually be defended.”
||The St. Thomas More Society
||The St. Thomas More Society is a group of Catholic lawyers, government officials, judges, law students, and others who seek to emulate St. Thomas More. Through continuing legal education credits, discussions, and social events, the organization promotes greater understanding of how to be God’s faithful servant first. To find out more, contact Susanna Herro, president, at
He was pleased that the U.S. Catholic bishops, in their recent meeting in Atlanta, had re-affirmed the statement Our First Most Cherished Liberty (available at www.usccb.org).
He quoted from that document, “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.”
Bishop Swain added, “We cannot and we will not make that choice.” And he believes that our fellow citizens would not ask that of us.
Bishop Swain witnessed how special interests can pressure public officials and how public officials might not fully appreciate what they are endorsing. His analysis is that the long-term impact of this threat to religious liberty is grave.
“Today we are being told we must condone or even pay for what we know is morally wrong, such as abortion-inducing drugs, sterilization, and artificial contraception or face government penalties. One wonders what the true intent of these enforcers is and what morally objectionable demands will be added as time goes on?”
Violence around the world
Although during the Fortnight for Freedom we are focused on our own religious freedom, Bishop Swain noted examples of religious violence all around the world: churches burned and people attacked in Egypt, India, Iraq and China, among many others.
In these countries, it appears that the violence stems from one religious group attacking another. The grave difference in what we are facing in the United States is that it is our own federal government seeking to force us to make an immoral choice, not through violence, but through huge penalties.
“The challenge in the United States is more subtle, but no less dangerous. It seeks to remove religious based organizations from the public square and impose its own ideology on us all. Today it is seeking to force the Church to choose between living out its moral values or our social teaching, which really are inseparable.”
Restricting Church’s ministry
Drawing from Pope Benedict XVI and Deus Caritas Est, Bishop Swain spoke of the Church’s deepest nature and three-fold responsibility to proclaim the Word of God, celebrate the sacraments, and exercise the ministry of charity. These natures are “an indispensable expression of her very being.”
In short, we serve others, not because they are Catholic, but because we are, an inseparable and an indispensable part of who we are.
While currently parishes might be safe from the more serious provisions of this law, our charitable institutions, such as hospitals, schools, and other institutions are at risk.
“Some federal government bureaucrats could now define what is church and which of our agencies are religious enough to be free from their regulations,” observed Bishop Swain.
“Clearly this is an effort to restrict us to worshipping only because our moral beliefs are not popular with some who now hold power. We don’t know what is religious enough. It appears that efforts are being made to restrict Catholics to worshipping only because our beliefs are not popular with some who are in power.”
How to respond
St. Thomas More was a layman. The laity has a special mission to develop ideas in the public square.
Bishop Swain urged each person to become more informed about these intrusions of the government power that threatens our ability to be God’s faithful servants first.
As our religious liberties are threatened, we need to learn and to share our knowledge; to pray now and continue to pray; to engage in public dialogue so we can be prepared to protect the consciences of all people.
Information is available at www.usccb.org for a national perspective and www.wisconsincatholic.org for state information.
In closing, Bishop Swain said, “We are Catholic. We are American. We are proud to be both. To be Catholic in America, we cannot, we will not, and with the grace of God, we need not choose between them. May God bless America, the land that we love.”
Susanna D. Herro is the president of the St. Thomas More Society.