In the footsteps of Saint Thomas More: Pray, educate, act

The image projected before us this evening is that of Saint Thomas More. Yes, he is the patron of our Cathedral and, indeed, of our diocese. He is also, to use a very familiar title, "A Man for All Seasons." How true that title is especially for this season, for this specific period in our nation's life in which we find ourselves. Listen for a moment to what G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1929, about 83 years ago: "Thomas More is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years' time." Yes, those are almost prophetic words in G.K. Chesterton's statement. The present danger we are facing is our struggle to uphold religious liberty, which is not only being threatened, but in August, will be actually begun to be dismantled.

Let me quote from my own reflection on this present danger, published in our diocesan newspaper, The Arlington Catholic Herald. "In the current challenge to our religious freedom forced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Catholics are fighting for the religious liberty to act according to our consciences - to be free not to commit what is an immoral act or to support others in doing so. The First Amendment to the Constitution provides all citizens with the right to religious freedom. This freedom extends not only to worship in one's church or synagogue, but also to the free exercise of that religion. Indeed, our country has throughout the years provided a refuge for those of many different faiths to flee religious persecution, to practice their beliefs in a democratic society. Religious freedom does not allow that we should or could force our beliefs on others, but rather that we will not be forced by others to violate our beliefs. Presently, the Obama Administration is mandating as of August 1 that all health insurance plans provide contraception coverage, including abortion-inducing drugs, and sterilizations, to their employees. The fight for religious liberty is not about whether or not American women have access to or utilize contraception; it is about whether or not as Catholics we can be forced to pay for these items. Paying for others to use contraceptives and undergo sterilizations is considered a sin by the Catholic Church. We would be using our funds to support procedures that are harmful to women and to their unborn children. This is something that a Catholic in good conscience cannot do."

Why are we turning to Saint Thomas More? Again, let me share my reflection. "The patron of our diocese, Saint Thomas More, stands as a model for all of us as we strive to uphold religious liberty. More, a renowned statesman throughout Christendom, man of letters and former Chancellor to the King of England, was asked to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn as Queen of England, recognizing her as King Henry VIII's wife despite his first marriage not being annulled in the Church. He also refused to take an oath which declared Henry VIII the supreme authority of the Catholic Church in England. In good conscience, Saint Thomas could not take these actions because he knew clearly the tenets of the Church upholding the sanctity of marriage and the Petrine Office. Despite his great contributions to England and the intellectual life of Europe throughout his career, the man we now call Saint Thomas More was found guilty of treason because he would not violate his conscience. He was beheaded. As American citizens, we fortunately do not presently face the terrible choice that confronted our patron, and we have had the privilege of living in a country that values the right to free exercise of religion. Yet, while in the past, the story of Saint Thomas More may have seemed distant, the choice between conscience and full citizenship has now been forced upon us. It may be easier to accept what the media and others tell us about the current debate over the HHS mandate. They tell us that "everyone" uses contraception, that it isn't a big deal. They tell us that we are being stubborn, reactionary and political. Do not be deceived. The First Amendment is being threatened, as well as our right to act according to our consciences. We cannot comply with this policy. This fight does take place, unavoidably, in the political arena because the state has instigated it. If this mandate stands, what will keep the government from forcing us to violate our consciences on other issues or forcing other religions to do the same?"

To be Catholic and American does not mean that we choose one over the other. Our allegiances are distinct, but they need not be contradictory. They should be, in fact, complementary mutually supportive. The Church teaches and exhorts us to work together for the common good of all who live within this nation. Religious liberty is the first of the amendments contained in the Bill of Rights. I would like to share with you a brief quote from a document that was written by the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, an excellent document that I commend to your reading and reflection. Speaking about religious liberty, I quote: "That is our American heritage, our most cherished freedom. It is the first freedom because if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile. If citizens are not free in their own consciences, how can they be free in relation to others, or to the state? If our obligations and duties to God are impeded, or even worse, contradicted by the government, then we can no longer claim to be a land of the free, and a beacon of hope for the world."

Brothers and sisters, the issue truly is most serious and most demanding of our prayer, our education, and of our action. Do not be mistaken. There is a distinction between conscientious objection and an unjust law. In the case of conscientious objection, relief is sought to a just law for reasons of conscience. A good example of conscientious objection is the issue of conscription for war. That is not what we are asking. When a law is unjust, there is no law. We are not seeking relief, we are seeking a repeal of the HHS Mandate. Because in that mandate, the government tells us who we are as a religion. It is up to us to state who we are as a religion, not the government.

What we do as Catholics - and what others do as well - in upholding and defending religious liberty is for all the people, not just for Catholics. So what are we being asked to do? We are being asked to pray, to become educated and informed and share that objective knowledge with others, and to take action. This really brings us to what bishops have called for as a national witness: the "Fortnight for Freedom." It is a national endeavor throughout this great land to pray, become more aware, educated and informed, and to take action. All three are essential, but, if one could speak in this way, one is more essential than the other two and that is prayer. As the psalmist would remind us, "unless the Lord builds a house, they labor in vain who build it." Or, as Jesus told us in the Gospel, "without me you can do nothing." So prayer must be at the center, and at the beginning, and at the end of everything we are attempting to do. Tonight, then, we begin with prayer at the opening of this Fortnight for Freedom. I seek with you, from the Lord, the wisdom and strength to understand clearly for what we are fighting and to struggle with every fiber of our being to uphold this first liberty.

In this regard, I wish to quote from a presentation to the bishops that was made by President John Garvey, President of the Catholic University of America. As he addressed us, he said: "The tragedy of Thomas More was that he had to die because he loved God. He could not be both a good subject and a faithful Catholic. Our tragedy is different, though it is no less about the protection of religious liberty. The mechanisms to preserve religious liberty only work when people care about their religion. Religious liberty will expand or contract accordingly. Saving religious liberty means reminding people that they should love God. Thomas More taught us that we need religious liberty. More importantly, he taught us that loving God is worth dying for. If that is so, then the freedom to love God is worth the fight. That's the message we need to get across. I think that asking people to keep this cause in their prayers during the Fortnight for Freedom is precisely the right remedy for what ails us" (John Garvey, June 13, 2012).

My brothers and sisters, beginning tonight up to July 4, as a nation, there will be many opportunities for us to pray, become even more informed, and to share that objective truth with others, in small groups, in neighborhoods, wherever we interact, and to take action where that is appropriate. This is truly a grave, grave danger and we know that when we are in danger, we come to the Lord for He is our bedrock. He is the strength of all that we are and do. We ask the help of Our Holy Mother, Mary, and of our patron, Saint Thomas More that we will be vigilant and strong in upholding religious liberty. Allow me to conclude with the closing words of my reflection: "Pray, fast, and advocate for religious liberty. Indeed, prayer and penance must be the rock - the foundation - of all that we do. Help ensure that our country continues to be one that welcomes peoples of all religions and recognizes the exercise of faith to be a fundamental right for all." Amen.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012