Clergy forum on religious freedom helps prepare priests for current, future threats

| Barb Ernster for The Catholic Spirit | June 18, 2013 | 0 Comments

After attending a pilot program designed to form and educate priests on religious-liberty issues, Father Jonathan Kelly, assistant priest at All Saints in Lakeville, is better prepared to articulate the challenges and threats facing the Church and all Cath­olics, and give resources and encouragement to his parish­ioners.

“This is important because the battle is going to be won by the laity,” he said. “We were given a clear understanding of the threats to religious freedom and how it will impact them because they’re actually going to be the ones that will be affected the most.”

The program, sponsored by the Minnesota Catholic Conference, was held June 2 and 3 at the Nicollet Island Inn, a prelude to the 2013 national “Fortnight for Freedom,” June 21 to July 4. The program hosted national experts who presented talks and held discussions on the issues from legal, philosophical, ecclesiastical and social ministry standpoints.

New insights

Father John Ubel, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul, said the academy provided him with new insights into the “state of the question” with respect to religious liberty questions in the U.S.

“While our primary role as priests is one of a spiritual nature, we cannot and must not be indifferent to the serious challenges we face with respect to the free exercise of our faith in the public square,” he said. “By being informed about these realities, I think I am in a better place to face these difficult pastoral challenges without appearing to be unpatriotic.”

Leading off the academy, Father Raymond de Souza from the Diocese of King­ston, Ont., discussed how the Church has addressed religious liberty questions throughout its history and how to apply those lessons to the current situation in the U.S. with the HHS mandate and certain immigration laws that impose requirements that conflict with Catholic moral teaching.

“You can have the state do things that the Church may say is not congruent with the common good, but it’s the state doing it. It’s a different issue when the state says you must as a Catholic agency or a Catholic citizen do such and such and that’s contrary to Church teaching,” he said.

Philosophy professor James Stoner, Jr., from Louisiana State University addressed the philosophical theories of modern liberalism.

“We have to be willing to push the envelope and not to feel too constrained in public to bring the witness of our faith,” he said. “On the other side, we have to do the hard work of thinking how we can persuade people to join us in passing just laws in ways that they can understand, without having to convert them first to the Catholic faith in order to get them to listen.”

Helen Alvaré of George Mason University School of Law explained the legal fight involved with regard to the First Amendment’s free exercise and establishment clauses.

In particular for Catholics are questions about how the government defines a minister and whether the Church has freedom to establish what that person does; what strings are attached to government grants and what services may be required that are hostile to the faith; and finally, whether the Church can get a legislative exemption or demand a free exercise exemption from the courts on the grounds that the Constitution or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act requires it.

“We should never underestimate that we are going up against claims that we are enemies of human rights. You see abortionists at the United Nations wearing pins that say, ‘human rights defender’ and we are now human rights attackers in their view,” she said. “It’s a deeply disturbing dynamic in the way they structured the fight so that when we ask for an exemption, we appear to be asking for an exemption from dispensing human rights.”

Deacon Kevin Sartorius, executive director of Catholic Charities in Tulsa, Okla., weighed in on the impact on the social mission of the Church.

Tulsa CC forgoes government funding, except for migration and immigration services, and relies instead on local parishes for donations and volunteers.

It also does not belong to Catholic Charities USA or United Way. Deacon Sartorius said Tulsa CC is a religious organization that is serious about maintaining its Catholic identity and a mission centered on Christ.

He gave numerous examples of how secularized policies that require compliance with a social agenda are impacting the Church’s social mission. One involved the loss of a grant to the U.S. Catholic bishops that allowed Catholic organizations, including Catholic Charities, to provide for the needs of human trafficking and sex trade victims. The USCCB found out that it lost the grant to another organization that scored lower on the grant scale because Catholic-affiliated agencies don’t refer those victims for abortions when they are pregnant.

These policies have shifted away from dignity, the common good and preferential option for the poor, to utilitarianism, individualism, pragmatism and science, said Deacon Sartorius. With its current funding model, Tulsa CC faces an uphill battle if Catholics in the pew continue to go the other way on gay marriage and other secular ideals and become hostile to some Catholic teachings. Still, he maintains hope.

“It’s in these times of difficulty and trial that we really shine through that darkness, and that’s what the message of this conference should be,” he said. “If we do our job and we evangelize, then this will come around and the clouds will disperse and it will be a better day.”

New evangelization

Father John Paul Erickson, director of the archdiocesan Office of Worship, said the Freedom Forum was a good example of the work of the new evangelization, which is not only about bringing individuals into contact with Jesus Christ but also about pointing out and combating widespread errors encountered in our culture regarding human dignity, human nature, and our capacity as human persons to know the truth.

“The Freedom Forum helped me to better recognize many of the philosophical errors we labor under within the United States, as well as to see the practical results of these errors as manifested in some of our current federal laws and public policies,” he said. “Knowledge of these sobering realities is important for the work of evangelization, for we must know the context within which we preach.”

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