As the government more tightly circumscribes citizens’ freedom to act on religious convictions in society, Catholics need to learn their faith well and be willing to defend it in charity against those who oppose it or don’t understand religious liberty and the threats it faces, according to speakers at a June 22 Freedom Forum on religious liberty at St. Peter in Mendota.
Not everyone is called to martyrdom, but we are called to give witness to the Gospel, said Father Joseph Gallatin, St. Peter pastor who presided at Mass at the half-day forum, which was part of the archdiocese’s observance of the Fortnight for Freedom.
The U.S. bishops called for the fortnight — a two-week period of prayer and fasting — to raise awareness of religious liberty issues. The forum featured talks by religious freedom experts.
“As people of faith, we need to make that message known,” Father Gallatin said. “Mostly, we’ll be able to do it in subtle ways, but increasingly it seems that we need to be a little bit more vocal about protecting the gifts God has given us, [including] the gift of our freedom to live our faith in all aspects of our lives.”
Speakers offered the 250 attendees a legal, historical and philosophical background on the concept of religious liberty, identified current threats and provided ideas for defending faith at the event, which was sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life and the Minnesota Catholic Conference.
Contributing to common good
Religious liberty is more than freedom of worship — the freedom to attend Mass — it’s also the Church’s freedom to govern itself and the free exercise of religion, said Jason Adkins, MCC executive director. It means the freedom to contribute to the common good.
“What it’s really about is allowing different people to exercise their theological convictions and having the freedom to do so,” Adkins said. “It does not mean separation of religion from society or the separation of morals from public discussion.”
Looking at the relationship between religion and the state through history, the two institutions have served as checks on each other, said Seana Sugrue, associate professor of American studies at Ave Maria University. “We would not enjoy our government with freedoms and checks and balances if not for the Catholic Church.”
Catholics have a tendency to accept what is powerful in the culture, according to J. Brian Benestad, professor of theology and director of the Catholic studies program at the University of Scranton. Many continue to believe President John F. Kennedy’s 1960 assertion that religion should have nothing to say to politics and often are apathetic about religious liberty issues.
Catholics who say they personally oppose laws violating Church teaching but favor allowing them for society apply “anesthesia for the conscience” and make arguments against their own views.
“We have to care that our religious views are being violated,” he said, adding that Catholics are doing it to themselves.
Among the current threats to religious liberty are the Obama administration’s HHS mandate requiring for-profit companies and soon non-profits to provide abortifacients, elective sterilization and contraceptive coverage to employees through their health plans; laws prohibiting the harboring of undocumented workers, anti-discrimination laws, and cases involving loss of free speech and barring groups from providing services.
All these cases are part of a broader secular trend, and it’s up to the laity to stand up by learning their faith and convincing others that it affects their lives, Benestad said.
Defending religious liberty is conduct-driven — through prayer, education and advocacy, he said. “The Acts of the Apostles is called the Acts of the Apostles. It’s not called the considered judgments of the Apostles, the special beliefs of the Apostles. It’s conduct rooted in conviction.”
Making an effective Christian witness in public involves advancing orthodoxy, being charitable to all and using good methods that honor God and don’t diminish effectiveness, Adkins said.
The Body of Christ has strength if it stays together, said Sara Hakanson of St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center who attended the forum because she’s concerned about how government actions are affecting freedom and wants to be educated.
“In order to help each other and in order to defend our positions in the matters before the government, we have to communicate where we stand. It feels like the fabric of society is changing faster and faster and if we want to have influence we have to act,” she said.
Her daughter, Kate, who will be a senior at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley this fall added, “As I see my classmates morphing and conforming to secular society I want to be able to articulate my arguments in class where sticking up for the traditional arguments of the Church and standing up for what I believe only gets more difficult.”
Joan Cunningham of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul and Margie Betts of St. Stanislaus in St. Paul came to the forum seeking ideas for communicating about religious liberty issues with their children and grandchildren.
“The next generation is not looking pretty,” Cunningham said. Catholics can’t be the light if they sit back and let others do it, she said.
Betts agree. “How we live our lives has got to be important,” she said.
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