Just a few weeks ago, the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Archbishop Timothy Dolan announced the creation of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. When we read the title of the new committee, our first thought may be that it is addressing religiously motivated persecution of Christians and other minority groups in other parts of the world.
However, this is not the case.
As shocking as it may seem, the new committee’s purpose is to protect the freedom of Catholics to exercise their faith and to follow their consciences here in the United States. In making this announcement, Archbishop Dolan said, “Never before have we faced this kind of challenge to our ability to engage in the public square as people of faith and as a service provider. If we do not act now, the consequence will be grave” (Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Letter to U.S. Bishops on Religious Freedom, September 29, 2011).
Indeed, all Catholics need to be aware that in recent years there have been unprecedented threats from our government to the free practice of our religion. In his letter, Archbishop Dolan outlines six areas in which the Federal Government, through policies pending and actual, attempts to force upon Catholic institutions and individuals practices that are antithetical to the faith. These include mandates that groups and individuals provide contraception, sterilization and abortifacients, as well as the agenda to change the definition of marriage and force society to affirm these changes. Among the most pressing of these threats are proposed regulations of the Department of Health and Human Services “that would mandate the coverage of contraception (including abortifacients) and sterilization in all private health insurance plans” (Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Letter to U.S. Bishops on Religious Freedom, September 29, 2011). There are exemptions to these regulations for certain religious organizations, but they are so narrow that most Catholic institutions like schools, hospitals and charitable agencies do not meet the requirements. What is more, there is no effort to protect individual employers from being forced to choose between following the moral law and providing health insurance to their employees.
The Church’s teachings on abortion and contraception are long standing, explicit and clear. All reasonably informed Catholics and even non-Catholics know that this is part of our core moral conviction. There is no alternative than to interpret these regulations as violations of our religious liberty and conscience because they demand that we betray our core beliefs or diminish our functions in the public arenas of education, service and business.
This is a moment of choice for all Catholics. The threat is clear and mounting and we cannot avoid taking a side. We know that in standing up for our faith, we may be exposing ourselves to more pointed persecution and isolation from mainstream society, but discipleship of Christ requires sacrifice, and there are times in the history of the Church where this truth is more obvious. We may very well be entering one of those times.
Lest we lose heart in the face of such a decision and its daunting consequences, we need to remember that every moment of choice for God is also a moment of grace. There is a moving scene in the Old Testament in which Joshua gathers together the people of God and asks them to make a decisive choice to accept and follow God in all things. In the midst of his discourse Joshua makes his decision clear, “as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD” (Josh 24:15). Joshua is bold in his witness because he knows that he does not walk alone. He goes forth in God’s grace. We should make Joshua’s statement our own and recognize that these statements are a moment of grace and witness. Our Lord Jesus repeatedly told us of this aspect of discipleship, “…they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony” (Luke 21:12-13). Moments of witness are part of God’s providential plan to save souls. As Catholics, we need to recognize and embrace our part in His design. So my brothers and sisters, what does this mean concretely for us today?
We need to make reasoned arguments on behalf of religious liberty in the public square and inform all Catholics and people of good will about the dangers we face. We need to be organized and astute in our advocacy so that we are effective. The Virginia Catholic Conference — the public policy advocacy organization representing the two Catholic dioceses in Virginia on matters before the Virginia General Assembly, the U.S. Congress, and the state and federal administrations and their agencies — is an essential arm for these efforts.
Thousands of members of the diocese are already facing this moment of choice and making critical public stands, but I urge every Catholic in our diocese who has not yet done so to make the tangible step of signing up for the Advocacy Network of the Virginia Catholic Conference — a simple one to two minutes at www.vacatholic.org. Updates and alerts via the email network serve to keep Catholics informed of and engaged with local and national matters of importance. There is no reason that every Catholic in Virginia should not be a part of this network.
Yet on an even more foundational level, we need to commit ourselves to fervent prayer. We know that what is really needed to turn the tide is a change of heart, and in the end, it is only God who can bring about this conversion. Any witness based on our own efforts will eventually falter and fail. Focused on the Heart of Christ, however, we cannot lose. No matter the cost, we can continue to struggle in joyful hope, knowing that God will bring the victory in the end.