With a strong new statement on religious freedom, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has launched a nationwide campaign to protect “our most cherished freedom.”
“It is the first freedom because if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile,” explain the US bishops in their statement, entitled Our First, Most Cherished Freedom. The USCCB statement, lengthy and strongly worded, signals the beginning of a major drive by the hierarchy to alert Americans to current threats to religious liberty.
The USCCB statement, issued by the bishops’ new committee on religious liberty, reminds readers that an unjust law does not command obedience, thereby raising the implicit threat that the Catholic hierarchy might support civil disobedience. The bishops ask Catholics to join in a “fortnight for freedom” before July 4, praying for the nation and rallying support for religious liberty.
Although the American bishops have engaged in a highly publicized dispute with the Obama administration over the mandate to include contraceptive coverage in health-care plans, the USCCB statement is not limited to that topic. The bishops point also argue that religious freedom is currently jeopardized by state immigration laws, by drives to change the corporate structures of Catholic dioceses and parishes, by restrictions on campus religious groups, and by threats to close down Catholic social-service agencies that do not abide by intrusive new government regulations.
“Religious liberty is not only about our ability to go to Mass on Sunday or pray the Rosary at home,” the bishops argue, continuing:
It is about whether we can make our contribution to the common good of all Americans. Can we do the good works our faith calls us to do, without having to compromise that very same faith? Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, deprived of the essential contribution in education, health care, feeding the hungry, civil rights, and social services that religious Americans make every day, both here at home and overseas.
What is at stake is whether America will continue to have a free, creative, and robust civil society—or whether the state alone will determine who gets to contribute to the common good, and how they get to do it. Religious believers are part of American civil society, which includes neighbors helping each other, community associations, fraternal service clubs, sports leagues, and youth groups. All these Americans make their contribution to our common life, and they do not need the permission of the government to do so. Restrictions on religious liberty are an attack on civil society and the American genius for voluntary associations.
In a particularly strong passage, the bishops’ statement raises the possibility of Catholic resistance against laws that violate the rights of conscience:
It is a sobering thing to contemplate our government enacting an unjust law. An unjust law cannot be obeyed. In the face of an unjust law, an accommodation is not to be sought, especially by resorting to equivocal words and deceptive practices. If we face today the prospect of unjust laws, then Catholics in America, in solidarity with our fellow citizens, must have the courage not to obey them. No American desires this. No Catholic welcomes it. But if it should fall upon us, we must discharge it as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith.
Questioned by the National Catholic Register about that passage, Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who heads the USCCB committee on religious liberty, said that the bishops “do not mean that we go to civil disobedience in the first instance.” Then he added: “But if a law is asking us to violate our conscience, then we could be faced with a Thomas More choice.”