The U.S. Catholic bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign definitely grabbed my attention this week as “Preserve Religious Liberty” yard signs cropped up in front of parishes and then our diocesan paper arrived with a special wrap-around addressing the matter. After reading the material this afternoon, I found myself feeling uneasy. While the concern for religious liberty prompted by the contraceptive mandate is important to many, the Fortnight’s conflation of liturgy, prayer and politics just doesn’t sit right with me. The wrap-around states:
“The archbishops encouraged parishes to offer Evening Prayer, 40 Hours, or other special prayer opportunities during this special two weeks. They have the archbishop’s permission to use an appropriate mass on Sunday, July 1, such as “For Persecuted Christians” or “For the Nation.”
The catholiccincinnati.com website offers: sample intercessions; evening prayer for religious freedom; communal prayer during exposition; litany for liberty and guide for adoration.”
I read yesterday that the Fortnight culminates with a mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., on July 4 and had a similar reaction, like the rites of the Church are being co-opted for a political agenda. I agree with James Salt at Catholics United that the comparison to martyrs is insulting to those who suffer actual violence because of their religious beliefs. At Faith in Public Life, an informative site new to me, I found a letter written by a group of parishioners in Washington, D.C., that speaks out against the bishops’ divisive and partisan approach on this matter. I share the hope expressed by their concluding prayer.
We are a group of thirty parishioners at The Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, DC. Our group, formed into a small faith community in the 1960s, has been active in and deeply committed to our parish for all the intervening years. Blessed Sacrament is our parish community, and we have loved and served it to the best of our abilities. We have helped to build and strengthen its institutions, participated in every aspect of its spiritual and social life, seen our children educated in our parish school, and received the sacraments in our church. Our views and actions on issues of social and economic justice, war and peace, and the dignity of all peoples have been in great measure determined by our life in this faith community.
Situated in Washington, our parish community is a complex one, reflecting and bringing together the political diversity of the nation’s capital, with leaders in government and media joining each Sunday in prayer. We have been through trying times together–war, civil strife, scandals in the church, terrorist attacks on our nation, contested elections, and controversial legislation–but we have remained a community, with our parish serving as our refuge. For all of us, whatever our political philosophy, our church has been a welcoming home.
This, we fear, may be changing.
On two recent consecutive Sundays, our parish bulletin has included rather alarming inserts from the Archdiocese speaking of a grave threat to religious freedom in America. The first of these was entitled “Our First, Most Cherished Freedom,” while the second closed with the dire warning that Catholics must “Act on Your Beliefs While You Still Can.” All of this, we understand, is part of a buildup to mobilize Catholics to participate in the “Fortnight for Freedom”–a two-week long demonstration planned by the bishops chiefly as a protest against the Affordable Care Act.
We are deeply concerned that, under cover of a campaign for religious liberty, the provision of universal health care–a priority of Catholic social teaching from the early years of the last century–is being turned into a wedge issue in a highly-charged political environment and that our parish, and indeed the wider church, is in danger of being rent asunder by partisan politics. We, as a group, may have differing views as to the wisdom of the details of the Health and Human Services mandate, against which our archdiocese has now announced a lawsuit in federal court, but we are united in our concern that the bishops’ alarmist call to defend religious freedom has had the effect of shutting down discussion.
It is a step too far. We, the faithful, are in danger of becoming pawns and collateral damage in a standoff between our church and our government.
While HHS may have been tone-deaf and stubborn in its handling of the mandate, we believe that the points of disagreement have been grossly overstated by the bishops. In no way do we feel that our religious freedom is at risk. We find it grotesque to have the call for this “Fortnight” evoke the names of holy martyrs who died resisting tyranny. And we are concerned that the extremist rhetoric used to describe the “threat to our freedoms” both undermines the credibility of our church and insults those in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who are truly suffering for their faith.
Furthermore, we find it incomprehensible that, in this time of worldwide economic distress and suffering, and with the church still reeling from the child abuse scandal, our bishops have chosen to focus the spiritual and material resources of our church on this issue, at the expense of the gospel injunction that we serve the poor and attend to the needs of the “least of these”.
And finally, to return to the subject of our own parish, we are anguished by the threat of its being drawn into the vortex of partisanship. This destructive process has already begun.
One of our group recounts being disturbed and deeply hurt by an incident that occurred recently at a parish-sponsored lecture featuring a diocesan official speaking about the health care controversy. The lecture itself contained references to what was repeatedly referred to as “Obamacare”–a term that elicited more heat than light. During the question-and-answer period the atmosphere became even more charged, until finally one person arose and spat out: “I have seen cars in our parish parking lot with Obama stickers on them. They are complicitous in all this.” Since the member of our group had such a sticker on her car, she felt unwelcome and left the event before it ended.
This is what we fear: that our church becomes tragically reduced to a partisan player in an election-year campaign and that our parish community becomes a battleground and no longer a source of spiritual strength.
Given our opposition to the misguided and costly “Fortnight for Freedom we are heartened by recent reports that the bishops are not in full unity on the question of how to respond to the Affordable Care Act and that at least some of them may be disposed to reconsider the overwrought statements that have been made concerning threats to our religious liberties.
And so we pray that our bishops, the clergy, and Catholic laypeople in our parish and across the land will join hands to pull us all back from the brink before it is too late. We pray also that we can come together as a community of faithful, and as a country, with renewed resolve to address the broad range of critical social, political, and economic issues affecting our nation and the world.
Photo by American Life League via Flickr under a Creative Commons license