My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
There's a new movie opening in theaters this weekend called For Greater Glory. Normally I don't endorse or recommend movies, but this one is very timely given our current struggles to protect religious liberty from government encroachment. For Greater Glory is the story of the Cristero War, fought from 1926 to 1929 by devout Catholic rebels against the Mexican government's attempt to secularize the country.
The original rebellion was set off by the persecution of Roman Catholics and a ban on their public religious practices. The secularist laws emanating from the constitution were first applied selectively, only in areas where Catholic sentiment was weakest. The Mexican government's secular antireligious campaigns escalated to eradicate what they called "superstition" and "fanaticism," including desecration of religious objects, persecution of the clergy and anticlerical legislation. Wearing clerical garb in public (i.e., outside church buildings) earned a fine of 500 pesos (approximately $250 at the time); a priest who criticized the government could be imprisoned for five years. In 1924 an atheist, Plutarco Elías Calles, was elected president of Mexico. Calles seized church property, expelled all foreign priests, and closed the monasteries, convents and religious schools. Calles insisted on a complete state monopoly on education, suppressing all Catholic education and introducing secular education in its place.
In response to these measures, Catholic organizations began to intensify their resistance. With the support of Pope Pius XI, the bishops of Mexico worked to have the offending articles of the Constitution amended. The Calles government considered the bishops' activism seditious behavior and had many more churches closed.
The Mexican Congress rejected the proposal of the bishops to amend the constitution on Sept. 22, 1926. Between 1926 and 1934 at least 40 priests were killed. There were 4,500 priests serving the people before the rebellion, but by 1934 there were only 334 priests licensed by the government to serve 15 million people. The rest had been eliminated by emigration, expulsion and assassination. By 1935, 17 states had no priest at all. It is striking that all of this happened in a country where the vast majority of the population was Catholic.
The persecution of Catholics was officially condemned by President Lázaro Cárdenas and the Mexican Congress in 1935. Government disregard for the church, however, did not abate until 1940, when President Manuel Ávila Camacho, a practicing Catholic, took office.
On May 21, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a group of 25 saints and martyrs arising from the Mexican Cristero War. The vast majority are Roman Catholic priests who were executed for carrying out their ministry despite the anti-clerical laws of President Calles. Their feast day is May 21.
For us here in the United States of America, there are ominous signs of similar anti-religious thinking on the part of the elites of government, academia and the media. An egregious example of this is the recent mandate of the United States Department of Health and Human Services requiring insurance coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization regardless even for those who have religious, moral or conscientious objection to such practices. One of the main differences between our current situation and the persecution in Mexico is that the Constitution and laws of the United States of America still protect religious liberty. At least I certainly hope that they still do. We will soon find out.
On May 21, 12 lawsuits were filed in federal courts across our country representing 43 plaintiffs, including the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois and our Catholic Charities. This lawsuit is about an unprecedented attack by the federal government on one of America's most cherished freedoms: the freedom to practice one's religion without government interference. It is not about whether people have access to certain services; it is about whether the government may force religious institutions and individuals to facilitate and fund services which violate their religious beliefs.
Unfortunately too many people, including many Catholics, are just shrugging this off because they mistakenly see this as a fight about contraception. A March study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that most American Catholics are generally supportive of the government's mandate. Fifty-seven percent of Catholics (and 56 percent of Americans in general) reject the idea that religious liberty is under siege in the U.S.
So how can I light a fire under you? Perhaps you don't care about contraception despite the church's teaching. But consider this: The 1965 contraception decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, Griswold v. Connecticut, provided the legal rationale for abortion on demand just eight years later in Roe v. Wade. If the HHS mandate is allowed to stand, I guarantee that it will not take eight years for some politicians to begin calling for the government to require Catholic hospitals to provide abortions. When that happens, Catholics will demand that bishops do something about that, but it will be too late if Catholic voters do not start to make their voices heard now. You can do so by contacting the White House at www.whitehouse.gov/contact.
This summer, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will conduct a "Fortnight for Freedom" beginning on June 21, the vigil of the feasts of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher and culminating on July 4, Independence Day. The purpose of this effort is to issue a nationwide call to defend religious liberty and to urge the laity to work to protect the first freedom of the Bill of Rights.
I will be celebrating a Mass for the Fortnight for Freedom at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at 5:15 p.m. on Friday, June 22, the second anniversary of my installation as bishop of Springfield in Illinois. All are welcome and priests are invited to concelebrate. I pray that our efforts to protect religious liberty will be successful.
May God give us this grace. Amen.