Tonight begins the second annual (and I suspect that it will be annual) Fortnight for Freedom, the observance by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops designed to call attention to threats to religious liberty in our country, everything from the abominable Health and Human Services Department mandate that will force Catholic institutions from schools to hospitals to social service agencies to cover or provide contraception and abortion, or whether it is a civil definition of marriage that could cause Catholic institutions to make a choice between abiding the civil law or closing their doors. Considering the very grave nature of the threat to religious liberty, it is right that the Bishops’ Conference, that Cardinal Dolan as the head of that body, and that our own Bishop Stika as the chief shepherd of this diocese should call attention to it, as he has done.
However, the sad business of all of this is that the bishops (or any member of the clergy) really are outside of their competence when they have to be the ones to engage an increasingly secular culture to stand up for religious liberty and for the freedom of the Church to go about living and spreading the Gospel, as Catholic columnist Rebecca Ryskind Teti pointed out in a column today. It isn’t the clergy’s job to defend religious liberty because it is the laity’s job to defend religious freedom in the civil sphere.
Bishop Stika and his colleagues are compelled to speak on the matter of religious freedom and to raise the concern with the rest of us in no small part because there are entirely too many Catholics who have spent years sitting in the pew on Sunday at Mass, receiving Holy Communion, taking for granted that not only the Sacraments of the Church are available to them, but that the Church will be at liberty to go about the mission of spreading the Good News in both deed as well as word and they can come and take Communion and go about their business, the other six days of the week they wouldn’t pay attention to the Lord’s business and the Church’s business (what Jesus might call Our Father’s business) because that was the concern of the priests and deacons and bishops. That, my dear friends, is why religious freedom seems to be on the wane throughout the Western world and certainly the constitutional guarantees of the Church are under very severe threat in the United States. We have taken it for granted for entirely too long, and now that creeping secularism is the order of the day, it is the bishops who are left to make the laity aware of the reality of the threats to the Church, and the bishops are left to engage the culture because the People of God haven’t been doing it.
Pope Francis recently said as much in a recent homily to people who work at the Vatican’s Institute for the Works of Religion when he said that it wrong for the faithful to expect that the priest will speak up, that the bishop will speak up, but that people in the pew should stay quiet. Being baptized and making one’s confirmation is not like getting an identity card that says “I’m a Christian,” he told them. We shouldn’t expect the clergy to do work for us that we should be doing for ourselves. Bishops, priests, and deacons are here to govern the Church and to see to the spiritual and charitable care of God’s people. It is then up to the People of God to take their faith out into the world and make a Gospel difference in the world, to stand up for the faith. The bishops should never feel that the freedom of the Church is under threat because holy and zealous laity should be defending that freedom in the civil sphere.
Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Thomas More, the one-time Chancellor of England who lost his office and his head because he refused to accept that a King could declare himself head of the Church in England or anywhere else, or that a King had the right to defy God’s law concerning marriage or anything else. The climactic trial depicted in the movie A Man for All Seasons, with the great actor Paul Scofield portraying More having been sentenced to death is one of my favorite movie scenes. The trial scene in the movie is based on what really happened that day in Westminster Hall so long ago.
It is also the feast of St. John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester who refused to sign the Act of Supremacy declaring Henry VIII head of the Church of England. In the face of death, would you be willing to defend the faith the way that Thomas More did, or are you just going to leave the clergy to do it?