My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
For the sixth year in a row, the Catholic Church in the United States will observe a “Fortnight for Freedom” from June 21 to July 4, Independence Day. This two-week period, which is called a fortnight, is a time when our liturgical calendar celebrates a series of great martyrs who remained faithful in the face of persecution by political power, including St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, St. John the Baptist, Saints Peter and Paul and the First Martyrs of the church of Rome. The purpose of this effort is to issue a nationwide call to defend religious liberty and to urge efforts to protect the first freedom of the Bill of Rights.
The theme of this year’s Fortnight is “Freedom for Mission.” In past years, people have participated in the Fortnight in diverse ways, including interfaith prayer services, special Masses and holy hours, and public events where speakers have highlighted the various threats to religious liberty, including at home and abroad. This year, we encourage Christians to use these two weeks to reflect on the importance of religious freedom so that the church might have space to carry out her mission of service and mercy. We also invite Christians to pray for our brothers and sisters who face intense persecution in other parts of the world.
In this time of increasing polarization in our culture, our Catholic tradition has much to offer in the conversation on how Americans can promote civility and the common good. We can speak with friends and neighbors about religious freedom in a way that respects all people and work to clear up misconceptions about it.
Religious freedom is a fundamental right. It means that the government cannot coerce people into acting against their consciences. This is important for all people, not just people of faith. A government that makes one group choose obedience to the state over obedience to faith and conscience can force any group to submit to the state’s demands. Religious freedom underlies all other freedoms for everyone.
People of faith need religious freedom to have the space to serve others. A good example involves the Little Sisters of the Poor, who live out their Christian faith by serving the elderly poor. These women have had to seek legal protection from a federal regulation requiring them to facilitate access to contraceptives, including abortion-inducing drugs and devices. Right here in Illinois as well as other parts of the country, our Catholic Charities programs have been forced to end our adoption and foster care services because we would not give in to the state’s demands that we violate our religious objections by placing children with same-sex couples.
In a closely-watched case involving religious freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in late June on the Trinity Lutheran case. Trinity Lutheran Church sought a grant from the state of Missouri to resurface the playground of the church’s preschool. Missouri runs a program that allows schools and nonprofits to obtain recycled tire pieces, which provide a safer playground surface for children. The program also benefits the ironment by recycling old tire scraps that would otherwise end up in landfills. However, Trinity Lutheran’s application was denied, despite its application scoring high enough to receive a grant, solely because it is affiliated with a church. A favorable decision for Trinity Lutheran could chip away at anti-Catholic Blaine amendments, which are present in over 30 state constitutions, and could be cited by school-choice advocates to expand scholarship opportunities for low-income students to attend faith-based schools.
Critics complain that religious people impose their faith on others. A pluralistic society, however, makes space for people who hold diverse views. Religious groups, and groups formed around a particular set of principles, need to be able to express and act on their views with integrity. True freedom results in a diversity that strengthens, rather than weakens, society.
As part of this year’s Fortnight for Freedom observance in our diocese, I invite you to join me for an event that we are calling “Rock the Rotunda for Religious Freedom” in the Rotunda of the Illinois State Capitol on Wednesday, June 28, at 12:00 noon. There will be music performed by Michael James Mette and our speaker will be Hillary Byrnes, Assistant General Counsel for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The event is free and open to the public. The space will be air-conditioned and accessible. You are welcome to bring your own brown bag lunch. More information about the Fortnight for Freedom is available online at www.dio.org/catholicism/fortnightforfreedom and www.Fortnight4Freedom.org.
As we celebrate our nation’s independence, I pray that you will have a happy and safe 4th of July!
May God give us this grace. Amen.