Protecting the precious gift of our religious liberty

| November 21, 2012
Archbishop Nienstedt

Archbishop John C. Nienstedt

The Solemnity of Christ the King, which we celebrate this Sunday, Nov. 25, was instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a response to the growing nationalism and secularism around the world. Specifically, in Russia, Mexico and in many places throughout Europe, atheistic regimes threatened not just the Catholic Church, but civilization itself.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Mexico, where the government’s enforcement of the 1917 constitution by the atheistic president Plutarco Calles provoked a rebellion among the peasants of that land in their demand for religious freedom.

All of this is well documented by the powerful movie adaptation, “For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada,” which was released this past June.

Harsh enforcement

The 1917 “reforms” forbad the existence of Catholic schools, subjected all churches and religious congregations to the civil law, prohibited priests from wearing clerical garb in public, restricted priests and other religious ministers from holding public office, excluded them from a trial by jury, and prevented them from receiving an inheritance from persons other than close blood relatives.

Priests who criticized the government were immediately imprisoned for five years. These reforms also allowed the state to regulate the number of priests in a given region, as in one instance, where only a single priest was legally permitted to serve the entire Catholic congregation of an enormous state.

Through a harsh enforcement of these laws, President Calles seized or destroyed church property, expelled all foreign priests, and closed monasteries, convents and, as I said before, religious schools.

In reaction to all this, the peasants — whose call to arms was “Viva Cristo Rey! Long live Christ the King!” — organized themselves into a guerrilla army in order to resist the government federales, who numbered close to 80,000 soldiers.

The violence began in the early 1920s, grew more intense in 1926, and was finally resolved only through a diplomatic settlement in 1929, though persecution of Catholics continued in various forms well into the 1940s.

The war claimed the lives of some 90,000 people: 59,000 on the federal side and 30,000 Cristeros, not to mention the numerous civilians killed in anti-clerical raids even after the war officially ended.

Many priests were also killed. Before the war, the number of priests in Mexico was 4,500; by 1934, there were only 334 priests licensed by the government, and this small number was supposed to serve 15 million Catholics. The rest had been eliminated by immigration, expulsion or outright assassination. In fact, by 1935, 17 Mexican states had no priests serving at all within their territory.

This deadly conflict, happening less than 100 years ago, should remind us of how precious the gift of our religious freedom is. We are obliged to cherish and protect it. It is the first of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and it was a fundamental reason for the establishment of our U.S. government. It came, however, at a price, and our forebearers were willing to fight, and some even to die, to ensure that it be preserved.

Undoubtedly, there were right-thinking Mexicans in 1916 who never imagined that their religious freedom would be threatened.

Problems with law

Today, a recent poll indicated that 57 percent of the American population does not believe that religious liberty is being threatened.

I heartily disagree. Here is why: Last year, the present administration was able to convince Congress to pass the Affordable Care Act (often referred to as ObamaCare) that mandated all employers, public or private, to cover the cost of contraception, sterilization and abortifacients in their employees’ health care insurance plans.

This law allowed for an exemption for religious employers, but only if such employers strictly hire employees who belong to that religious denomination or faith community, and if that employer only provided services to people of that particular religious belief.

Thus, most parish staffs and even many parish schools would be exempt. But Catholic colleges, Catholic hospitals and Catholic Charities would certainly not be.

Of the latter, their only alternatives to following the unjust law would be to refuse to offer health insurance (which would incur a $2,000 annual fine per employee), be subject to stiff monetary fines ($100 per employee per day), or go out of business.

That’s it. There would be no other way.

No real compromise

It is true, that the administration promised what it called a compromise by proposing that insurance companies could pay for the services in question rather than the employer.

However, for most Catholic entities, this is no compromise at all, since most of our institutions are presently covered by Catholic insurance companies, like Catholic Mutual Group or Catholic United Financial, among others.

And, even if a non-Catholic insurer does cover this expense, it will most likely be done by raising premiums, thus making the employer ultimately responsible for the expense.

But let us be clear. Our truly historic struggle against the equally historic HHS mandate is ultimately not about contraception. Neither is it about health care, nor the rights of women.

It is about the intrusion of the government into the fundamental rights of conscience and the right of religious bodies to govern, guide and define their own institutions.

Such an intrusion should greatly alarm all citizens, not simply those of faith. Appeals to the administration for a more fundamental compromise have been met with stony resistance.

Forty-three Catholic dioceses, schools, hospitals, social service agencies and other institutions initially filed suit against the HHS mandate in federal court on May 21 to stop three government agencies from implementing the mandate.

On Aug. 6, the Obama administration asked the court to dismiss summarily the suits, saying they were premature and that the plaintiffs had no standing to challenge the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate.

Being judged “premature” means that since the legislation has not gone into effect, no institution has as yet suffered any harm as a result.  Yet, entities like Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind., contend that they are now finalizing their 2013-14 budget in which such fines could run into the range of $9 million annually.

Similarly, the Archdiocese of Washington estimates that it will pay nearly $145 million a year or else be forced to cancel health insurance benefits for its 4,000 employees and their dependents.

Ways to respond

At our general assembly in Baltimore last week, the Catholic bishops of our nation renewed our determination to repeal the current definition of a religious organization as well as press for more liberal conscience clauses through a legislative reprieve or a judicial decision.

We also proposed a five-part spirituality program for our Catholic people that would include:

  • A parish holy hour, beginning on the Feast of the Holy Family (Dec. 30), and being held on the last Sunday of every month going forward;
  • A commitment to pray the daily rosary for the intention of preserving religious liberty;
  • Voluntary abstinence from eating meat on Fridays;
  • Regular petitions in the Sunday Prayer of the Faithful for religious freedom;
  • A second Fortnight for Freedom from June 22 to July 4, 2013.

I recommend any and all the parts of this plan to our parishes and other Catholic institutions as a way of raising the consciousness of our Catholic and non-Catholic people regarding the challenges that face us as Americans.

Religious liberty is a cherished gift.  Let us do all that we can to protect and safeguard it.

God bless you!

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Category: That They May All Be One

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