Maryland history frames Fortnight for Freedom
By Maria Wiering
In Alabama, a new law prohibits priests and pastors from ministering to undocumented immigrants.
In New York, small church groups cannot rent public schools on weekends for worship, but non-religious groups can.
In Boston, San Francisco, the District of Columbia and the state of Illinois, Catholic Charities discontinued adoption or foster care services after conflicting with local governments over the charities’ commitment not to place children with same-sex couples or heterosexual cohabitating couples.
“Over the years, there has been an erosion of religious liberty, both culturally and legally,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.
The committee’s recent statement on religious liberty outlined several examples of “religious liberty under attack,” citing the cases from Alabama to Illinois.
Among those perceived threats is one the U.S. bishops have called “unprecedented” – the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that employers, including most religious employers, provide health insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs, which conflict with church teaching.
With the hope of drawing greater attention to the weakening of religious liberties in the United States, the U.S. bishops are promoting a Fortnight for Freedom – 14 days dedicated to prayer, education and public action.
The campaign will begin in Baltimore June 21, when Archbishop Lori will celebrate a 7 p.m. Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore. It will end with a similar Mass in Washington, D.C., July 4.
As Catholics ponder what the March 2012 U.S. bishops’ statement on religious freedom calls their “Christian and American heritage of religious liberty,” the basilica is a fitting backdrop for the Fortnight, Archbishop Lori said.
“The basilica stands as a testament to a new country founded on the proposition that all are created equal, and endowed, by the Creator, with rights to life, liberty and happiness,” he told the Catholic Review.
Built between 1806 and 1821, the basilica is America’s first Catholic cathedral.
Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore, America’s first bishop and a cousin of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, commissioned the project to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, an architect who was also working on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Nearly two centuries earlier, Maryland was founded on the idea of religious freedom by Lord Baltimore George Calvert, and his son, Cecil Calvert, both British Catholics.
The British Catholics and Protestants who disembarked the Arc and the Dove in what is now St. Mary’s County in 1634 intended to live together peacefully, and they codified their vision in Maryland’s 1649 Act Concerning Religion, the first law in America’s history to protect an individual’s right to freedom of conscience. The law was abolished in 1655 after Puritans briefly took power in the colony, but it was restored two years later.
After Britain’s Glorious Revolution in 1688, new monarchs William and Mary decreed Maryland a royal colony, stripping Maryland’s governance from the Calverts and imposing the Church of England as the state religion. Catholics were subjected to discriminatory penal laws, including statutes forbidding them to hold office, vote or worship publicly. The Annapolis home of Charles Carroll, the Declaration signer, included a private chapel for Mass, where area Catholics joined him for worship.
The status of Catholics here changed with the success of the American Revolution. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment listed the freedom of religion first, and Catholics set out building churches, including Baltimore’s basilica.
“It’s a symbol of the new day, a new dawning of religious freedom that Catholics truly rejoiced in,” said Father Michael Roach, chairman of the department of church history at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg and pastor of St. Bartholomew in Manchester.
In 1887, Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore hailed his homeland’s commitment to religious freedom from his titular church, Santa Maria in Trastevere, in Rome. Archbishop Lori has tentative plans to preach June 28 from the same site as part of the Fortnight events. He will be in Rome to receive his pallium, a vestment signifying his position as a metropolitan archbishop.
The U.S. bishops referred to Cardinal Gibbons’ speech in their March 2012 statement on religious freedom, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.”
“I belong to a country where the civil government holds over us the aegis of its protection, without interfering with us in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel of Christ,” Cardinal Gibbons said. “Our country has liberty without license, and authority without despotism.”
While the HHS mandate has, as Archbishop Lori said, “put our work to defend religious liberty on steroids,” the U.S. bishops first voiced concerns regarding religious liberty in spring 2011, after several state Catholic conferences reported their own concerns over the types of legislation introduced and passing in state legislatures, he said.
As bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., Archbishop Lori spearheaded successful efforts in 2009 against state legislation that sought to hand full financial control of Catholic parishes to a lay committee, which would have severed parish leadership from clergy and violated canon law.
The Office of State Ethics subsequently began to investigate the Diocese of Bridgeport for unauthorized lobbying. The diocese responded with a lawsuit, and the investigation ceased. Archbishop Lori described the situation in a 2010 pastoral letter on religious freedom, “Let Freedom Ring.”
In addition to the U.S. bishops, other Catholic institutions have voiced opposition to the mandate. In May, 43 Catholic entities, including health care systems and universities, filed 12 federal lawsuits against the federal government over the mandate.
Mount St. Mary’s University was not among them, but Thomas Powell, its president, said it may consider a legal challenge in the future. In March, he wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama opposing the mandate, and the university has contacted other officials in the administration and Congress. The university also observed a day of prayer and fasting for the preservation of religious liberty.
Powell pointed to the university’s founder, Father John Dubois, who escaped religious persecution in France and went on to do significant work in the fledging Catholic Church in America, including serving as New York’s
“We couldn’t just sit by without comment,” he said. “If having a rich history as America’s second-oldest Catholic university means something, it means that we stand up in times of difficulty. It would be a lot easier to keep quiet and go along with the flow, but that’s not what we’re called to do.”
Mary Ellen Russell, the Maryland Catholic Conference executive director and consultant for the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, says she is concerned about a narrowing partnership between government and faith-based organizations.
“There is so much good work that the church and many other faith institutions provide in service to citizens of all faith and no faith at all, but if we are going to be increasingly hindered from performing those good works in a manner consistent with those beliefs it will be a loss for everybody,” she said.
Archbishop Lori calls the Fortnight’s timing “providential,” given the HHS mandate controversy. The dates were not chosen to coincide with the lawsuits, or the anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of the federal health care law, from which the mandate comes, he said.
The timing highlights America’s Independence Day and the significant feast days preceding it, he said.
The Fortnight begins on the eve of the feast day of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, who were martyred in 1535 for refusing to reject the Catholic Church after Henry VIII founded the Church of England, splitting from Rome.
The church’s martyrs remind Catholics what the faith costs, Father Roach said.
“It’s not a facile membership we have in the church,” he said. “We see what it cost these very brave men and women, and it’s still going to cost us something today. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can be completely comfortable in a secular society.”
Archbishop Lori hopes the Fortnight inspires many people to pray for the restoration of religious liberty and learn about “God-given” freedoms, he said.
“If we are really serious about preserving and restoring religious liberty, then we need to pray for it,” he said.
Copyright (c) June 12, 2012 CatholicReview.org