The freedom to bear witness to the Gospel

In April of 1535, one of our diocesan patrons, Saint Thomas More, was sentenced to death for refusing to recognize King Henry VIII as the religious leader of England, after the king broke ties with Rome. For nearly three months he awaited his execution in the Tower of London. On a spiritual level, Saint Thomas More was awaiting his crowning as a martyr, or "witness" in Greek. More would die bearing witness to the truth which the earliest Christians so boldly proclaimed: Jesus Christ is Lord. "I die the king's servant, but God's first," he said.

On June 21, American Catholics will begin the fourth Fortnight for Freedom, two weeks set aside for prayer, fasting, education and advocacy for the protection of religious freedom at home and abroad. This year's theme, "Freedom to Bear Witness," should prompt us to ask God to reveal how He is calling each of us, with our unique gifts and talents, to bear witness to Christ by the way in which we live our lives.

But there must also be another prayer - a petition - which we offer with great urgency: Lord, protect and preserve our religious freedom. Together with one voice we must ask the Lord to preserve our fundamental right to live in accord with the dictates of His divine law and the promptings of our consciences. "Happy are those who observe God's decrees, who seek the Lord with all their heart" (Psalm 119:2).

While so many of our brothers and sisters around the world live in places where religious freedom is restricted, or worse, eradicated, we are blessed to live in a nation in which this fundamental human right is inscribed in our Constitution. From its founding, this great nation has served as a sanctuary for countless people seeking refuge from oppression. It has been a place in which people from diverse religious backgrounds experience what Pope Francis has termed "a culture of encounter."

At the core of many current threats to religious liberty - from limits of free speech on college campuses to the mandated coverage of contraceptives and abortifacients in healthcare - is a challenge to the biblical revelation of the purpose of human sexuality, the nature of marriage and the inviolability of human life in all of its stages. The right to life is the fundamental human right upon which all others are built. And, as Pope Saint John Paul II has said, "the family is the building block of society." What could be more important than preserving our right to bear witness to these two truths?

Of course, we have a responsibility to be good citizens, to obey civil authority and to participate in political and social life. The pursuit of the common good is something we as Catholics share with our fellow Americans, and there is room for healthy tension and debate as to how to bring it about. However, when that tension slides into coercion and intolerance, we must speak up.

Some argue that religious freedom still exists, that no one has shut our church doors. But religious liberty is more than the freedom to privately worship or pray. In a 2014 address, Pope Francis said, "Religious freedom is not just a matter of thought or private devotion. It is the freedom to live - both privately and publicly - according to the ethical principles that are a consequence of the truth found." Our faith compels us to bring Christ who we receive inside the walls into a world which so desperately needs Him.

We American Catholics have a long tradition of educating and caring for our brothers and sisters who are most in need. From Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton to Saint Katherine Drexel to Dorothy Day to the Little Sisters of the Poor, Catholics have founded schools, hospitals and charitable organizations which build up the common good. Although it is our faith which compels us to care for our neighbors, we serve all of God's children, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. We have only asked to care for others in accord with the fullness of Gospel teachings. We can't afford to give them anything less.

We do not yet know whether or not our religious freedom will continue to be threatened, but we do know that the Lord hears our prayers. "Have courage! Be of heart!" Our Lord repeatedly instructs us in the Gospel. Let us have this trust and courage as we begin the Fortnight for Freedom. And let us be emboldened, like Saint Thomas More, to bear witness to the truth, in season and out.

Follow Bishop Loverde on Twitter @Bishop_Loverde.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015