Today is the day when we, as Americans, are supposed to celebrate our freedom and our liberty. It was 237 years ago that the political forefathers of this great country declared independence from Great Britain. There was only one Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll, who was a cousin of the very first Archbishop of Baltimore, John Carroll. The Carroll family played such a significant role in the establishment of the Catholic Church as a national institution in America that to this day many Catholic schools are named for Archbishop John Carroll. Carroll Hall at the University of Notre Dame is named for Charles Carroll. The influence of the Carroll family in building the Church in the early days of our country is unmistakable, because Baltimore was the very first episcopal see city in the United States and is the Mother of all dioceses east of the Mississippi River (every diocese east of the Mississippi contains territory that was once a part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore). Daniel Carroll, the brother of Archbishop John Carroll, signed both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States.
Considering the struggles of Catholics from the earliest days of settlement in our country (there was a time when in some colonies and early States that Catholics were not allowed to hold office or vote, for example), one has to wonder what Charles Carroll or Archbishop John Carroll might think if they could see the state of things in America today. We celebrate freedom that we truly do not fully enjoy. The Supreme Court overturns referendums passed by voters with no solid constitutional precedent, and the President of the United States and his cabinet dedicate themselves only to supporting those laws that they like, rejecting those that they do not (like the Defense of Marriage Act), and actively implementing executive mandates which openly violate the Church’s freedom to act and conduct herself and her institutions according to the teachings which she preaches. What is even sadder is that some so-called Catholics busy themselves trying to defend such vile imposition into the liberties of the Church, rather than using their vote, their voice, and their personal influence trying to defend Holy Mother Church.
How did we arrive at such a pass as a Church, going in just over two and a quarter centuries from no respect or freedom and outright persecution in some cases, to tolerating or even allowing that disrespect and persecution after many years of freedom and prosperity? The first answer may unfortunately lay in the last part of that previous sentence, because for years we have taken our freedom for granted largely because prosperity often breeds contempt for truth. In their affluence, people become comfortable with injustice so long as it doesn’t impact their bottom line, and freedom is often a word folks throw around without understanding its true (and very deep) biblical meaning. Liberty has become something that we as a people abuse by confusing it with license, and failing to exercise the moral and social self-control that is necessary for a free government and society rooted in the very idea of the liberty of the individual to succeed. When we fail to regulate ourselves according to God’s law, government becomes our babysitter and our moral guide, and our new prayer becomes not “Our Father, who art in Heaven…” but “Our Father, who art in Washington…” As we are learning, the morals of the state often have little to do with the teachings of the Church or the laws of Almighty God.
The second answer to why we find ourselves as Catholics in the present situation may have to do with our own collective sins as a Church and as a people. We already know of the terrible impact that the sex abuse scandal has had in the pews in many places. Those of us who have been blessed to be presently engaged in a process of clerical formation know that as a result of this most dreadful of scandals, we must be ever vigilant in looking out for the welfare of children. We have all been taught the hard way that the well-being of children in the Church is everyone’s responsibility, and our failure as a Church, and the past failures of our leaders to protect kids have made a whole generation of parents wary of bringing their kids to the Church as a place of safe-haven. What is most sad, of course, is that the overwhelming majority of clergy and lay ministers in the Church would never dream of harming any child, and many have dedicated their whole lives to ministering to the needs of children and youth with great care and zeal. Still, the mass of the innocent must pay for the sins of the guilty when the ministers of the Church are among those who have done harm to the most innocent among us, and all of us feel the effects of this.
Even more than the scandal about which has been said far more than what I have written above, however, is an unwillingness by some (and I want to stress that it is some, not all, and that this is my opinion, though I believe it well-grounded) of those in ordained ministry to teach or preach on matters which may be seen to cause some to feel uncomfortable. Whether the issues are abortion and contraception, which may make some who are of a certain socio-political perspective squirm when they hear them discussed, or whether the issues are poverty and economic injustice, which will make those of the opposite socio-political perspective squirm when they are discussed, the truth of the Church’s teaching cannot be ignored and it cannot be “buttered over.” Jesus did not preach a sugar-coated Gospel. We know that many crowds flocked to Jesus and the healing balm of his message, but we also know that it was his message of who he was and what he represented that ultimately meant that he would take up the Cross. That is what professing, believing, proclaiming, and living the Gospel will mean and and should mean for all of us, regardless of who we are or where we come from.
This does not mean that every Sunday should be filled with controversy, hard preaching, and angry letters to the bishop about what Father or Deacon so-and-so said at Mass (as may occur with this blog post!), because the man who preaches only about what is wrong will fail to see what is going right, and how the Holy Spirit works through positive good, and it could also lead to a spirit that is not Christ-like at all. On the other hand, failure to preach, teach, or discuss difficult issues, hard moral questions, and controversial Church teachings in the very places they need to be talked about (at Mass and at catechetical sessions), is a big part of the reason we now find ourselves where we are, with so many self-professing Catholics who do not know their faith and with bishops who are often forced to stand alone for the Church against the power of the secular state.
Yet in spite of the difficulties with which we are faced, I still see hope. I see that hope each year when I look at our catechumens and candidates in RCIA, they come to the Church because of the power of the Gospel-the Good News-that the Church still represents. I see the hope of the Church when I look at my brother Aspirants who are committed to a deep love of the Lord and the Church, and who are committed to representing the Truth, both in season and out of season. I see the hope of the Church in groups within our parishes like the Knights of Columbus, or like the Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP) group in my own parish, who are committed to informing and engaging the People of God about the things that really matter to us. I see hope when I think of Catholic Social Services and Father Reagan Shriver’s work with some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and I see hope when I think of the seminarians of our diocese who are committing their lives to the service of the Church and the spread of the Gospel. Yes, there are many things we can improve upon, but there is so much reason for hope.
What we must remember is not to take our freedom for granted, or to assume it, nor must we confuse our God-given liberty with the license to do as we please.