By Tanya Connor
WORCESTER – U.S. founding fathers upheld rights of conscience and religious liberty like the Catholic Church does, said a sister whose congregation is seeking freedom to continue its ministry.
Convergence between Church teaching and ideas of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson “can empower us in our current struggles for religious liberty,” Sister Constance Veit said Friday at St. Paul Cathedral. She suggested listeners promote such freedom by forming their consciences and respecting others, including opponents.
Sister Constance is communications director for her congregation, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who sued the government over the HHS mandate.
She asked for prayers for the case, pending before the 10th Circuit Court in Denver, and said the decision might be accelerated by Friday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage throughout the nation.
Bishop McManus called that decision sad and tragic. He was preaching at a Mass for the Diocesan observance of the Fortnight for Freedom. Sister Constance’s presentation followed the Mass.
“Freedom to Bear Witness” is the theme for this year’s Fortnight, a period of prayer, education, and action being observed by Catholics nationwide from June 21 through July 4. The U.S. Catholic bishops initiated the Fortnight in 2012, in response to the mandate proposed and finalized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of the health care reform law dubbed Obamacare.
The HHS mandate requires employers to provide their employees with health insurance coverage that includes abortifacients, contraception and sterilization, which the Catholic Church opposes, or they’ll face fines. The case of the Little Sisters, who serve the elderly poor, is among numerous cases filed against the mandate.
Bishop McManus used the Little Sisters as an example in preaching about the importance of Christians having freedom to witness to their faith by serving those in need.
The Gospel says salvation depends on how one cares for “the least,” he said. In response, the Church has borne witness to the faith by establishing hospitals, schools, etc.
“We have reached a troubling time in our nation’s history,” when freedom to do this is threatened by immoral mandates, he said. In opposing the HHS mandate, Catholics are not asking for privileges, but demanding freedom, he said.
He noted that the Vatican Council II Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, says government exceeds its power if it presumes to control or restrict religious activity, through which people direct themselves to God.
Sister Constance quoted from that declaration and other sources, and talked about religious intolerance.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony, guided by English law and Scripture in 1630, expelled Puritans Roger Williams, who advocated for separation of church and state, and Anne Hutchinson, who led unofficial devotional meetings, Sister Constance said.
They would have found solace in Dignitatis Humanae, she said, and quoted: “… no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly … within due limits. … The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person … ”
Sister Constance said the final version of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, drafted by James Madison and George Mason, said: “…all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” Mason had written: “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” But Madison objected that toleration implied that the exercise of religion could be considered a government-granted privilege, not a right flowing from duty to the Creator.
Madison made similar points in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray brought insights from the American understanding of free exercise to Vatican II in the drafting of Dignitatis Humanae, Sister Constance said.
“I firmly believe that a big part of the problem in our contemporary culture’s evident disdain for religion and freedom of conscience claims is that our sense of history and our ability for reflection and contemplation have become severely disabled,” she said. “We have lost the ability … to go ot that secret, inner sanctuary where we are alone with God and where we can ponder life’s deeper truths.”
She quoted Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput: “The biggest problem we face as a culture isn’t gay marriage or global warming … The deeper problem … is … we speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing. Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power. … And it can’t be otherwise, because the religious vision and convictions that once animated American life are no longer welcome at the table.”
Sister Constance said Washington D.C.’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl said: “It has become increasingly acceptable … to disparage as bigoted and mean-spirited anyone who seeks to uphold fundamental truths about the human person that have been recognized throughout history. In a time when for many the supreme civic virtue is ‘tolerance,’ the Catholic faith is considered intolerable … We cannot be expected to embrace error and give up our identity which inspired us to form ministries of teaching, healing and charity in the first place.”
The Little Sisters fear that if assisted suicide and euthanasia are legalized in more states, and conscience protections are further narrowed, they could find themselves being coerced into participating in these acts they oppose, Sister Constance said. She asked how they could help kill the most vulnerable, to whom they have devoted their lives.
Catholics can promote freedom of conscience by forming their consciences through prayer, study, reception of the sacraments and spiritual direction, she said, and by how they treat others. She said she feels that “rampant incivility” in society can leak into personal relationships and efforts to evangelize.
“It is all too easy to be disagreeable or shrill toward those who show disdain or disrespect for our cherished values,” she said. “But Thomas Jefferson once said that ‘it behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasions of it in the case of others.’ Likewise, Dignitatis Humanae reminds us that respect for freedom of conscience must be reciprocal. We owe others the same respect we expect from them, even if we think they are wrong. … Let’s be humbly proud of the Church’s teachings, knowing that they are from God and not from us. Let us be apostles whose love and joy are unwavering and therefore infectious!”