Note: This homily was delivered at St. Peter Church in Skokie on June 24.
On June 21, at 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, in the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the Catholic Church in the United States began a time of prayer, study and intercession.
Over the next two weeks, we are invited to pray in thanksgiving for the freedoms we have enjoyed in the United States for the past 236 years. We are invited to study the current situation where changes in federal law, for the first time, threaten to limit that freedom. And we are called to offer intercession for the millions of Christians around the world who are denied the freedoms which we currently enjoy.
We are very blessed in the United States to have the freedoms we currently enjoy. As most of you know, I’ve done a lot of international work in my 32 years as a priest. I have been in other parts of the world, where I had to be very careful what I said both publicly and privately because of government surveillance or laws which limit religious expression. Standing in the pulpit at St. Peter in Skokie, I have no such worries. This is truly something for which we, as Americans should be proud, and for which we should give thanks to God.
You will hear a great deal of controversy over the Fortnight for Freedom in the media. The media supposes this to be a lobbying effort over the health care mandates. That’s what you will be reading in the newspapers and hearing about in media.
While the mandates are an important issue, the deeper and more important one has to do with the government’s definition of religion which is found in the regulations. It’s like the fine print in a contract, which can contradict what a salesperson is telling you.
The “fine print” in this case is that the federal government has taken upon itself to define what is and is not a religious institution. It has never done that before, because the Constitution says that it can’t do that. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...”
But now the government has done so. As it stands today, only institutions that offer worship or education, solely to their own members, are defined as religious. This means that Catholic Charities, Catholic Social Services, Catholic hospitals and even Catholic universities like Notre Dame have been defined by the federal authorities as not religious institutions and therefore unable to claim the religious exemptions from practices which violate the teachings of their church.
Father Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, put it this way in describing the law suit the University of Notre Dame filed against the government regulations: “For if we concede that the government can decide which religious organizations are sufficiently religious to be awarded the freedom to follow the principles that define their mission, then we have begun to walk down a path that ultimately leads to the undermining of those institutions.”
In short, if the definition of religion is restricted to worship and religious education of a church’s own members, then, according to the government, the ministry of Mother Teresa would not pass the definition as being religious.
It is this second aspect, the government defining what is and is not religion and religious practice, which is the more fundamental issue and the more dangerous challenge to our freedoms. I would urge you to study the materials on the diocesan website www.archchicago.org and inform yourselves about the issues.
Finally, I would ask you to pray for our sister and brother Christians throughout the world, where there is an increase of intolerance and active persecution. They are living faithfully without the calm which we in the United States have enjoyed.
Even as we challenge our government to remain true to the Constitution and the vision of the founding fathers, we must recognize what a great blessing America has been for religious people. And this is all the more reason for you to get involved in insuring that the government does not change our country into something less than what Americans have enjoyed these 236 years.
Baima is vicar for ecumenical and interreligious affairs, vice rector for academic affairs at University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary and liaison for formation programs on the Archdiocesan Administrative Council.