This year Pentecost falls on a patriotic holiday - Memorial Day weekend. I would like to take advantage of this coincidence to address an extremely important issue: recent violations of our freedom of religion. This is not an easy issue to address - especially in an election year - but we cannot responsibly avoid it. Our bishops are deeply concerned about attacks on religious freedom. A few weeks ago they issued a powerful declaration entitled, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty”. It begins with these words:
“We are Catholics. We are Americans. We are proud of 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.”
But then they say: “Religious liberty is under attack, both at home and abroad.”
Religious liberty is under attack. Before addressing how this freedom is under attack - in our country - let’s take a look at today’s Scripture readings because they give a perfect example of religious liberty which illustrates why it is important.
Check it out: Both the reading from Acts and the Gospel begin with the disciples gathered in prayer. They are enclosed in a room - possibly the same upper room where they celebrated the Last Supper. While they pray, the Holy Spirit comes upon them.
Then, when the Holy Spirit comes, a change occurs. They are “sent.” They go out to preach publicly, to heal and to reconcile men with God. They have a mission.
So, on Pentecost Sunday we see two things: prayer and mission. We begin with prayer. Prayer opens us to the Holy Spirit, and when we receive Him, he gives us a mission - a mission that brings us into the public square. Prayer and mission. The two cannot be separated.
Unfortunately some people despise the unity of prayer and mission. Today people are desperately trying to divorce the two. They are saying to us: “It’s OK if you pray privately, but we will tell you what you can do publicly.” There has even been a subtle change in language. Government officials don’t talk about freedom of religion any more; now they speak about “freedom of worship.” This might seem small, but it has huge implications. It’s like saying to the Apostles: “You can pray any way you want, you have freedom of worship, but do it in your own little room. Don’t bother the rest of us. We will tell you what you can and cannot do when you go out of that little room.”
That is exactly what’s happening today. The US government is attempting to restrict our mission. The bishops give seven examples in their document. You have heard about the one most notorious example: The Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs. This mandate would force almost all religious institutions - including Catholic hospitals, schools and parishes - to facilitate and fund products contrary to their own moral teaching.
We would be required to facilitate the use of these products not only for married couples, but also for singles, college students, even high school youth. Many bishops, including Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, have stated that if this mandate becomes effective, we will close our hospitals and schools rather than submit to such a violation of conscience.
And that’s just one of the seven examples of violation of religious freedom. Here’s another: “Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the state of Illinois have all driven local Catholic Charities out of the business of providing adoption or foster care services - by revoking their licenses, by ending their government contracts, or both - because those Charities refused to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried couples who cohabit.”
Personally I am not worried about the Church. We have faced restrictions and outright persecution - and have come through it strengthened. I am, however, worried about America. If Christians are forced out of adoption services, health care, education and social services, it will hurt our country. And in the end, curtailing religious freedom will lead to attacks on other freedoms. It has happened in other countries and it could happen here. Our own parish’s patron saint, St. Thomas More, was beheaded for defending religious freedom in England. And then it happened again in the 20th century in Mexico; learn all about it next weekend when a new movie about it is being released called “For Greater Glory” which depicts how Mexican Catholics gave their lives in defense of religious freedom.
We all know that freedom isn’t free. We have to fight for it. The purpose of Memorial Day is to remember those who gave their lives defending our freedoms.
It is providential that Pentecost 2012 falls on Memorial Day weekend. As we heard in the readings, the first thing we must do is pray - open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. But prayer leads to mission. No matter what any government says, we cannot give up our mission.
As our bishops state: “We are Catholics. We are Americans... Our allegiances are distinct, but they need not be contradictory and instead should be complimentary.” Pentecost Sunday underscores our Christian mission. Memorial Day reminds us of the sacrifice required to maintain freedom. And our first, most cherished liberty is religious freedom. During the next few weeks, our bishops will publish precise action plans that we should all participate in, to raise public awareness of the current attacks against religious freedom and of the necessity to defend it.
Some of you might be tempted to tell me that I shouldn’t preach about political matters from the pulpit because the first amendment’s separation of church and state prohibits it. Please don’t tell me that, because it’s dead wrong. Reading the US Constitution reveals that it has only one purpose: to restrict what the government can do. It does not restrict what the people can do. The first amendment only points in one direction. It prohibits the government from interfering with religious activities; it does not forbid religious citizens from getting involved in political issues. To put it simply, it separates the state from church affairs, but it does not separate the church from state affairs. In fact, our religion requires us to be politically active, since faith without works is dead (James chapter 2). Furthermore, the current issue is precisely all about the separation of church and state: the government is violating the first amendment by telling us how we can and can’t exercise our religion. We should feel outrage at this contemptuous violation of our rights, but outrage isn’t enough; we are morally obliged as Americans to harness that outrage and rise to the occasion and do what every good citizen should do: actively defend the rights that our government is violating with impunity.
The dictionary defines “tyranny” as “unrestrained exercise of power.” Our government is supposed to be one of restrained powers, limited powers explicitly enumerated in the Constitution. But our government is now exercising powers that the Constitution explicitly prohibits it from exercising. Tragically, some of the government leaders who are violating the Constitution took an oath to defend the Constitution! Is this not an unrestrained exercise of power? None dare call it tyranny, except the dictionary.
We US citizens know that our rights were originally secured at a great price by selfless military men and women for themselves and for their compatriots and for their posterity. Maintaining the protection of those rights is now our sacred duty. As Thomas Jefferson wisely said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. Will future generations enjoy freedom of religion, or will they be reduced to only having freedom of worship, due to our inaction?
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and Mary, giving them the power to boldly preach and to minister to the people in ways that were often counter-cultural and even sometimes against the will of the government. May that same Holy Spirit now come upon us to give us the wisdom to recognize tyranny and to give us the courage to overthrow it. Amen.
Thanks to USCCB.ORG for many of the ideas used here. -jkh-