The US Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty has issued what can fairly be called a call to arms in the emerging battle for the future of religious liberty in the United States ("Our First, Most Cherished Liberty: A Statement on Religious Liberty").
How much attention it will actually get beyond narrowly clerical circles is anyone's guess at present, but the issue is obviously not going to go away, and the Bishops have a done an excellent job of stating their case clearly and highlighting what is ultimately at stake.
For, while the threat is external, in the culture, its efficacy derives from religion's perceived political weakness. To cite the familiar example of the HHS Mandate, what government would ever have created such an unnecessary conflict if there had been reason to believe that the religious institutions under attack could successfully mobilize politically to oppose it, i.e., that they could count on the necessary numbers of voters to support religious liberty against the government?
Invoking Pope Benedict's Ad Limina Address to American Bishops in Rome last January, the Bishops recognize the fundamental challenge: "the need for an engaged, articulate and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-a-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church's participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society." (I am reminded of Isaac Hecker's understanding that an effective outward-oriented Catholic evangelizing mission in American society presupposed an internal renewal of the Church's energies).
The litany of external threats repeated in the Bishops' statement highlights how pervasive the challenge to religion has become - a challenge that did not just begin with the HHS Mandate. In addition to that, the Bishops call attention to several recently passed state immigration law that criminalize the pastoral care of undocumented immigrants, a poposed 2009 bill in Connecticut to force Catholic parishes to restructure their governance in a non-Catholic manner, a State University Law School denying student organization status to a Christian Legal Society, Catholic Charities being driven out of adoption and foster care services in certain jurisdictions, New York City's barring churches from renting public school space on the same terms as other, non-religious groups, and the recent federal government discrimination against Catholic humanitarian services.
Notwithstanding that freedom of religion is enshrined in the Bill of Rights - in the very first sentence of the First Amendment - it is easily undermined when insufficiently valued by society. By dramatically demonstrating just what is at stake, perhaps the controversy caused by the HHS Mandate has done us all a favor.
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